On May 13, 2021, Karine Coen-Sanchez, a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Professor Francis Bangou, Vice-Dean of Governance and Student Affairs in the Faculty of Education, co-organized the virtual roundtable Anti-racism beyond the academy: Voices from the community. With over 200 attendees (a record number of participants), the event was part of the Faculty’s flagship project Together Against Racism. The aim of the panel was to merge the voices of community leaders and activists engaged in combatting and dismantling racism in schools, to discuss various strategies to ignite systematic change, and to work towards inclusive education. In this conversation, the co-hosts discuss multiple issues that surfaced during the conversation, highlight the primary contributions from presenters, and reflect on lessons learned.
FB: Karine, given your background as a scholar, anti-racism researcher and community activist, what were the key issues you felt emerged from the roundtable?
KCS: The issues of social positionality, allyship, and safe space/accountability incited an interactive discussion between the panelists and the participants. Such topics included how to effectively infuse antiracist discourses in the classroom, finding a happy medium between antiracist pedagogical practices, students’ and teachers’ experiences and convictions, and program expectations. Some questions focused on the hurdles each panelist experienced in the process of advocating antiracism in school settings, the role universities may play in supporting antiracist education, and their views on the future of antiracist education.
FB: Our panelists were all education professionals with a wide range of expertise. Can you highlight some of their main contributions?
KCS: Yes, it really was an exceptional group of thinkers from so many different locations in the domain of education. For example, Bileh Abdi, the founder of l’Association Canadienne pour la promotion des heritages Africains (ACPHA), indicated that training and workshops centered around African heritage and history can undo damaging stereotypes which hinder the full development of Black students in society. Learning about African heritage, according to Abdi, will ensure the sustainability of students’ culture.
Tom D’Amico, Director of Education with the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB), reflected on core issues of equity and racism within the education sector and said we should move beyond policies into concrete actions. He argued that system change must be done with everyone included, saying that ‘education is the solution.’
Secondary Mathematics teacher Jimmy Pai added his perspectives on equity and anti-racism, stressing the importance of work done directly with marginalized communities, where lived experiences are centered. He said moving towards being ally adjacent is something that is learned through “actions in a new way in a new space,” and by working and creating opportunity for change.
Finally, Nathalie Sirois, an education and community organization professional with over two decades of experience, recounted her learning journey as a white woman in the field of education. She elaborated the importance of: 1) understanding your emotions vis-à-vis racism; 2) understanding the intercultural power dynamics; and 3) deconstructing/reconstructing in order to learn and to relearn systematic racism.
FB: Tell us more about some of the lessons learned. How can we be both critical and compassionate?
KCS: We can look to ongoing training and challenging the current issues, and provide leaderships and support to marginalized communities. We can focus on building communities and the relationships that take into account the role of power and privilege. We all enter a space with our own lived experiences, we breathe the same air but we don’t; we enter the same space but we don’t. Anti-racism needs to be verb and not only a noun. It requires consistent actions and work.
FB: You think fear is an obstacle in the collective journey towards equity, diversity and inclusion. Can you explain what you mean by this?
KCS: We need to continue to grow in our knowledge and understanding of ‘ism’ how our existing systems perpetuate racism, how it is manifested in schools, workplaces, and create authentic opportunities for people to speak freely. Racism is consequential therefore, an ‘all hands-on deck’ is the better approach when addressing systematic barriers. Undertaking some of the cognitive dissonances with people who do not see racism as an issue. One hurdle is fear. People avoid the conversation because they don’t want to feel bad or take accountability. Understanding accountability means being responsible for yourself, your intentions, words, and actions, and understanding the privileged position you hold.
FB: You are a vocal advocate for anti-racism work. What do you see as the most important elements for educators to consider?
KCS: Ongoing systemic change requires democratic and challenging discussions and actions that deconstruct historically ingrained racist educational structures. Equity and racism is an ongoing discussion and should be viewed as a journey and not a final destination. It is important to:
- Promote the creation of accountable space for dialogue and discussions,
- Challenge the polarization of discourse;
- Compare and contrast what has been done to what needs to be done;
- Understand social positionality and privilege in order to work collaboratively towards fostering change;
- Ask new questions in order to have safe intercultural dialogues;
- Finally, it is essential to have some level of dissociation in order to be fully engaged citizens in anti-racism work.
We need to be continuously building relationships and connections, as we all play a part in the work of equity and anti-racism.
Karine Coen-Sanchez is a doctoral candidate, researcher and activist. Her research examines systematic racism embedded in educational institutions and how this manifests in the experiences of racialized students and workers. She is particularly interested in deconstructing the concept of race and exploring how the term 'racialization' draws attention to how 'racial' identities are constructed and contested within relations of power. Her research interests emerged from her own experiences as a Black student where she observed a profound disconnect between the make-up of the student body and what was being taught in her graduate program’s curriculum. Karine recently won the Mitacs Acceleration Award and Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences 2021 Congress Graduate Merit Award, is the co-chair for the Advisory Committee to Address Anti-Black Racism, and has been featured by the Canadian Sociology Association on their website for her incredible research and community involvement.
Francis Bangou is Vice-Dean, Governance and Student Affairs and an Associate Professor in Second Language Education (French and English). His research focuses on the adaptation of second language teachers and learners to unfamiliar teaching and Learning environments, and the implementation of digital technologies in second language education. Professor Bangou earned his PhD in Foreign and Second Language Education at Ohio State University and joined the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education in 2007. He is the Director of the research group EducLang.
See our initiative Together Against Racism: A year of Reflection and Action