It’s complicated. That’s what the Toronto District School Board failed to appreciate when it made a pro forma decision to remove two books from a TDSB supported book club for girls, thereby setting off a spectacular social media firestorm of debate. I find it ironic that a public board that talks a good equity game made a decision that ended up disempowering the young women it meant to empower. That the book club was founded to provide disenfranchised girls the opportunity to find their voice through engagement with complex literary topics, only to have the opportunity taken away because those with power saw complex concepts as binary – well, that’s pretty much an Alanis Morissette song if I ever heard one.
Here’s the part I find truly ironic. A public school board that purports to foster deep learning and critical thinking removed one book because the board’s representative didn’t understand that criminal defence lawyers don’t actually condone the alleged crimes of the clients they defend. The other book was removed because the same representative thought that a Nobel Peace Prize winning Muslim author’s criticism of the Islamic State, a terrorist organization widely condemned by Muslims, would lead to Islamophobia. If I were feeling generous, I might argue that mistakes happen. But I’m not feeling generous. I’m frustrated that complex issues are increasingly presented in the public arena with reductionist thinking and facile attention to information. I’m disheartened that students see what are ostensibly errors in fact positioned by those who should know better as differences of opinion open for debate.
I know it’s hard to navigate social justice issues. Diversity, equity and inclusion are complex concepts because they involve people, and people are not simple. No issue stands alone. They intersect and iterate and elude, and if we’re lucky, we manage to capture some understanding of them for moments at a time, hanging on to what we think we know until new learning forces us to elevate or deepen our beliefs yet again. This is not the work of intellectual lightweights. This is heavy lifting.
The problem with heavy lifting or what is, in fact, intellectual and emotional growth, is that it’s hard. It makes us uneasy. I often remind students that the times they feel frustrated, the moments that actually make their brain hurt, that’s when learning is about to take hold. It’s the cognitive frustration that causes mental discomfort, and it happens when you are on the precipice of deeper understanding. It’s the moment in your development when you have a choice to make: Do I push through the discomfort to the other side? Or do I slide back to what feels familiar, safe and easy? Much of what’s happening on social media and in public debate is evidence of people sliding back – of holding opinions based on oftentimes shameful simplifications of complex and nuanced issues. If I can demand more of our students then I think we can all demand more of our public institutions, thought influencers and government leaders.
I know that students become frustrated with me at times because I often acknowledge their ideas with, “Yes, and…” It’s not that I don’t revel in every expression they bring forth or rejoice in moments when they find the courage to speak up. I do. They make my heart sing. But I believe in our students and respect them too much to let them settle into their beliefs too easily. I ask that they push back against reductionist thinking that fails to understand multiple perspectives, or challenge them when their views fail to consider the experience of others. I encourage them to question the validity of all opinions, including their own. And when they can do that – when they find their voice, a voice that is grounded in heart and mind, confident in what it knows but still open to the possibility of future growth, then I feel we’re living our school’s mission, vision and values.
We’re working hard at the Castle to promote a culture of resilience, kindness and insight. We’re training our teachers to facilitate difficult conversations that allow for differences of opinion, experience and belief to be shared in respectful and brave ways. We engaged Future Design School to complete a Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Audit that included a review of our curriculum, policies, and school communications, and undertook surveys and focus groups of staff, students and families. We’ll be using the audit’s findings and recommendations to strengthen what we’re doing well and identify where we need to do better.
Students must be at the centre of all we do, and it’s the student voice we want to hear. This term, our student-run Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee spent time considering whether to change the name of the Ryerson boarding wing, seeking feedback from other students and staff, and presenting its recommendations to the Trafalgar Castle School Board of Directors. Last week, our first student-initiated Black Affinity Group was created to ensure a safe place for Black students to talk and share with others who understand first-hand what they experience. Other key initiatives will emerge in planned and organic ways as we explore questions of identify and belonging, and consider what it means to be an authentically diverse and welcoming community.
I can’t promise that we will always get it right as we tackle the challenge of DEI. In fact, mistakes will likely be made along the way because the work we are undertaking as a school community is complicated. It involves young people, all of whom are exploring their identity and relationship to the world around them. It includes adults, many of whom enjoy privileges that are currently being challenged by changing social norms and the reconciliation of our country’s past actions. It involves tradition and innovation, the past and the future. This work is not for the faint of heart.
I hope our community will support us in the months and years ahead as we grow and evolve. We will no doubt experience collective moments of discomfort as we push through to the other side of deeper understanding. We may even have moments of disagreement as challenging issues come to the forefront and demand difficult conversations. But we are committed to this work because it’s the right thing to do. So please join us as we model determination, careful listening and compassion, while reminding ourselves that we do this in the service of our students, each of whom deserves a future filled with equal opportunity, happiness and fulfillment.