Anyone who has attended meetings at the Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) office on 133 Greenbank Road will attest to the grandness of the council chamber room, the massive artworks reflecting different aspects of education, and the wall map outlining the expansive territorial reach of the board.But what may be the most impactful aspect of the space is the distance created between school board trustees, staff, and community representatives who come to engage on various issues. On one end, the chair, flanked by senior staff, sits some 40 metres across a massive ringed table, with the school board trustees placed outside the perimeter. At the other end of the table are community members who come to present. It is necessary to use one of the microphones interspersed around the table in order to be heard.But being heard is much different than being listened to.A few weeks ago, Nyansapo, a relatively new group composed of Ottawa black parents and community organizations, came to present at the OCDSB’s Committee of the Whole (COW). This committee consists of school board trustees and staff, and has regularly scheduled meetings at which community members can bring forward issues and recommendations.Nyansapo representatives had come to seek support for a renewed engagement with the black community on issues related to school suspensions and expulsions, curriculum development and staffing, issues that disproportionately impact children from our communities.But on this day, as is the case on most days when Black folk come with the intent on using this forum to make change, the committee would not have anything to do with it. “Your four minutes have expired, I ask that you wrap up your presentation,” said the chair in a measured, gentle tone, strategically cutting off our presenter at the end of a point. The discombobulating nature of the intervention had the desired effect of forcing her to hasten, truncate the presentation, making salient points as quickly as possible.The two Black women presenters looked briefly at each other before rising to leave the hot seat. The meeting chair was already on to the next agenda item before they had seated themselves amongst the few supportive community members in the gallery.The council chamber and meeting structure gives a court-like ambiance to the proceedings, like White judges presiding over Black defendants who come to plead their case for equity, inclusion and voice at tables that decide the fate of our children in the school system.
It is striking to me that after 400 years, from slavery to segregation, to diversity and inclusion (but no enforceable policies), we are given only four minutes to bring forward issues to address Canada’s legacy regarding anti-black racism in the educational system. No time to share our stories of the impact of decades of differential treatment. No space to share our perspectives on what meaningful engagement, dialogue and redress would look like.
It is a glaring indication of how seriously the OCDSB takes community concerns. As far as I am concerned, it is by design.
It is striking that after 400 years, from slavery to segregation, to diversity and inclusion, we are given only four minutes to bring forward issues to address Canada’s legacy regarding anti-black racism in the educational system.
As our presenters prepared to leave the OCDSB council chamber, still wondering why they had not been engaged in a legitimate way, the image of an amalgamated Safe Schools policy was projected on a big screen for all to see. When this policy was instituted some years ago, our communities expressed concern that it was being used to criminalize, suspend and expel Black youth from Ontario schools at an accelerated rate. This discussion, led by staff, was not constrained by a timer. And despite the cautioning of one trustee, the revised policy was adopted as is. No room for community consultation.
It is no wonder that few community members come out to support our people who present at this body. We understand the near futility of engaging this hegemonic institution whose purpose appears to be to steadfastly maintain the status quo.
This article was originally published at the Ottawa Citizen Online on December 10, 2018.
About the writer
Richard Sharpe is a community activist and co-founder of the 613/819 Black Hub. He can reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.