In conversation with Crystal-Lee Savage, Teacher, Colonel By Secondary School

Crystal-Lee Savage

Crystal-Lee Savage

Could you tell me about your childhood? Where were you born? Is there anything about your childhood that stands out for you?

I was born in Ottawa to a very young mother, so I grew up in a multigenerational household.  I was brought up by my mother, my grandparents and my aunts and uncles.  Family has always been a cornerstone in my life and I think growing up with so many family members has helped me to find connections with a variety of people of different ages and personalities

Was there any person or persons that influenced your childhood the most?

My mother and my grandmother are incredibly strong women who have been through the fire and back.  Despite their difficult journeys in life, they always have an encouraging smile to offer and they can find the silver lining in almost any situation.

What is your educational background?

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Science as well as my Bachelors in Education from the University of Toronto.  I made sure to achieve a minor in French as well in order to be able to teach Sciences in French.

Could you describe your job as a teacher? How long have you been with Colonel By Secondary School?

I never realized that being a teacher meant working days, nights, weekends and lesson planning over the summer, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.  I love my job and my students make me look forward to each day. I currently teach Grade 9 International Baccalaureate (IB) Science in French Immersion, Grade 10 Academic Science and Grade 9 IB Core French.  I have been teaching at Colonel By since 2009.

Is it correct that you are the only African-Canadian teacher in the school? What has the experience been like? Has that made any difference in your relationship and interaction with other staff?

Yes, I am the only Black-Canadian teacher at the school. I tend to forget that I’m the only one, as our student body is very diverse, so I see people of different races on a regular basis in the hallways and in the classroom.  The students make me feel at home, as I grew up in diverse environments ranging from my home, to my church to my University, so it’s nice to have many students with whom I can share cultural experiences.

My experience with my colleagues has been rather ordinary.  I haven’t had any negative race-related interactions with colleagues, but I do recognize that there is a lack of diversity in our staff.   This could possibly pose a struggle for students to make solid connections with their teachers or perhaps it dissuades them from pursuing a career as teachers themselves, as their race isn’t represented through their teachers.

You are also the organizer and prime mover of the hugely successful annual Black History Month event in the school. What challenges have you faced in taking on this major project each year and how did you address them? What keeps you going with this venture each year?

The main challenges with the production of the show is scheduling. The students at Colonel By are exceptionally motivated and participate in many clubs and sports throughout the year. Our communication in the club must be widespread in order to to reach every student involved.  The BHM club execs have to communicate to members in a variety of formats including face-to-face, Facebook, emails, advertisements via our school CougarVision show and regular announcements over the PA in school.

Another obvious challenge is the fact that I’m the only supervisor working on this production and it is difficult splitting myself between meetings and practices morning, afternoon and after school.  I don’t think I ate lunch in February, as there was just too much going on!

The final challenge would be the difficulty in confirming sponsors for the show.  One interesting aspect to our BHM show is that we serve a variety of food during intermission, and most of the food is donated by just a few solid and faithful restaurants that support us each year.  We also have our wonderful parents who cook and donate various African and Caribbean dishes for our show.

My students work very hard to make calls every year to request support from various organizations and I am happy that we are slowly, but surely gaining more exposure and support year after year.

Despite the challenges to run the show, I keep going because the outcome is so rewarding and, quite honestly, it’s just so fun.  Many students come out of their shells with this BHM show, because it offers them roles that they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.  From our amazing backstage crew to those who shine onstage, the positive energy and feeling of accomplishment is felt by everyone involved.  Most importantly, I keep going because of the feedback from students and audience members who have confirmed that they have learned so much about Black History and the Black experience through this production.

What advice would you give to teachers in other schools who wish to take on similar challenges but are daunted by the scope of the work involved?

Teachers who wish to take on this type of show should first talk to their colleagues about the importance of such an event in their school.  They should know that a Black History piece in their school has such a positive impact on the school population and truly unifies different cultures within the student body. I think it’s important that teachers work together as a team to run this type of event, as I know first hand that it is difficult to do this on your own.  A good first step in forming a team is to talk to the admin staff to find out what teachers might be interested and available to help supervise the process of this type of event.  Finally, motivated students leaders are essential in making this event run smoothly, as the student leaders are the ones driving the process and motivating other students to take part.

Outside of your job as a teacher and your involvement with the Black History Month event, do you have any other outside interests or hobbies?

My other hobbies include listening to live music bands and singers.  My love for music is how I met my husband who is the drummer in his band, SoundProof.  We share this love for the live music scene and we also share a strong love for good food as well!

You are one of very few people within the black community who volunteer for the well-being of others. How would you explain why it is so difficult to get people to commit to volunteering, to give back, so that those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged can prosper. I am thinking of those who are well established in jobs or businesses, who can readily invest a few hours each week or month to mentor our youth, serve on not-for- profit organizations and so help our community move forward.

Let’s face it, volunteering isn’t easy. It requires passion, commitment, and an understanding that our time on this Earth is finite.  I would urge organizations to take a hard look at volunteer programs and talk to their staff about the various needs in our community.  It is important for professionals to give-back and use their diverse areas of expertise to help better their community.  Often times, individuals do not recognize how valuable their skillset really is to their community.  There are so many opportunities that can make an impact on the future of young people.  Bettering our community can be as simple as speaking to youth at a school event or offering a helping hand in a city clean-up, a boys and girls club, a sports team, a fundraising program, a food bank, a church or a retirement home.   Volunteering has no limits, it just takes an open mind and some strategic planning.  The result will always be valuable as lasting connections are formed throughout the community.

Looking at Canada’s black population, there seems to be a divide between Anglophone and francophone communities. On another front, there also appears to be a divide between people from the Caribbean and those from continental Africa. Do you agree with this perspective and if so, what can be done to remedy these differences?

While there are differences do to culture including food, music, language and clothing preferences, I wouldn’t call it a divide. People innately tend to gravitate to those they can relate to and this can create pockets of cultures which is definitely apparent in high schools.  This is why I try to encourage diverse groups in my school to participate in our Black History Month show.  Events like this help to fade divisions between groups and bring people together for a unified purpose.

Over the years, have you seen any change in the status of the black population in Canada? Are we any better off now than say, ten or fifteen years ago? Do you note any differences between progress by black women compared to black men?

I believe there has been quite a significant progression for Black women especially.  I have seen many more women standing out in the Black community recently as professionals and politicians. It is an incredible encouragement for young black women to be able to grow up with accomplished and prominent figures in the spotlight such as Michaëlle Jean, Mary Anne Chambers and Rosey Edeh to name a few.

There are some segments of our community which claim that black men do not respect black women and vice versa. They suggest that we tend to defer to other races when we interact with them, especially white Caucasians. Do you agree with this perspective?

Although people do have tendencies to stick to their own cultural communities, as I had previously mentioned, I do see that cultural barriers are breaking down more and more in our community and even in the media.  As a mixed race individual who grew up with my black mother in a Jamaican family, I have a difficult time addressing this perspective.  The fact that my father is white does not imply that my mother had a lack of respect towards black men.  A person’s interaction with someone who happens to be of another race does not imply a disrespect towards their own. We’re often too quick to judge each other’s interactions as preferences.

Looking at the Black population in Canada, what do you see as our greatest challenges and how do we resolve them? What are our strengths?

One of our greatest challenges is the lack of support we give to each other.  We should hold each other up and support one another in our communities, businesses and organizations. One of our greatest strengths is our determination in the face of adversity. We are very resilient people and I don’t think that will ever change.

Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?

Make a conscious effort this year to support the members in our Black community in Ottawa.  Continue to read Black Ottawa Scene and make a difference in our community by encouraging our youth in their positive endeavors.

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