By Yanet Mengistie
Posted on October 8, 2021
On June 1, 2021 a major milestone was reached in the education field in Canada, it was the day the Centre of Excellence for Black Student Achievement launched virtually due to COVID-19. The Centre has big plans on how to close the education gap between Black and white students, while also featuring Black Canadian trailblazers. Any Black person who has ever felt disjointed or excluded from the education system in Canada will hopefully feel represented and included at this Centre.
The Centre’s purpose and goals
The Centre was launched with a main objective; to help Black students succeed in the face of systemic barriers preventing them from doing so. Data from within the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) shows that Black students are not being supported in the ways they should be by educational staff and the system as a whole. This is why the Centre seeks to promote Black excellence in academics through providing strong academic support systems for Black students. This space will support Black students using collected data to highlight the barriers they have been facing, and “create professional learning in anti-Black racism” that can dismantle these systemic hurdles ingrained in the TDSB. The Centre will also create annual accountability reports and recommendations to present to the TDSB to hold the Board accountable for the issues Black students face within their schools. This data is to produce a raised consciousness, which means raised awareness of the long-standing racism in the TDSB. Aside from providing data, the Centre will also have staff who can provide face-to-face support to students. There are 20 staff members, who range from social workers, child or youth counselors, and graduation coaches who will all aid in propelling students forward in their academics and future goals.
Significant Black figures at the event
There were several Black leaders at the virtual opening whose research and activism has been a part of the reason the Centre opened. In the inauguration, these leaders expanded on their hopes and goals for the centre and for Black youth in Toronto going forward:
Dr. Nicole West-Burns, CEO of NWB Consulting, has a vision for the centre to be “Modern, majestic, sophisticated and unapologetically Black,” as author Josie Pickens stated.
Dr. George Dei, leader in the field of Anti-Racism studies and Professor of Social Justice Education at the University of Toronto (OISE) stated, “for far too long Black educational excellence has been undersold and I think it’s about time.”
Dr. Njoki Wane, Professor at the University of Toronto and current chair in the Department of Social Justice Education at OISE, spoke on how the Centre will facilitate the healing of Black students: “The Centre of Excellence will play a huge role in our healing. We will have elders to help us to know who we are, our cultural identity[…]how do we heal? By documenting our success stories. Our inventions[…]we need to document our talents.”
Dr. Carl E. James, Professor at York University, who has created multiple studies that have exposed the racism within the TDSB; stated that the centre is, “Not simply a centre of excellence, but a centre that is responsive to the needs of Black students that’s going to show us that Black students can graduate and go to university.”
Why is a centre like this important?
The Centre is significant as it will celebrate the accomplishments of Black students, something that is not often done in Canada. While many places in Canada commemorate the achievements of white Canadians—with schools, streets, and whole exhibitions in the Royal Ontario Museum being a few of the places they are featured—there is little to no representation of the achievements of Black Canadians. In Canada, the contributions of Afro-Caribbeans have been erased. Students learn about the pioneers and English and French battles throughout their academic careers, but rarely about the carnage that was done to Indigenous communities and the enslavement of Black people that took place in Canada. Most don’t even know that enslavement occurred in Canada. The popular narrative is that Canada offered sanctuary to enslaved African Americans who were escaping the United States, when in reality there were enslaved Black people in Canada as part of the trans-atlantic slave trade, dating back to the 1600s. Canada also has a pattern of ignoring the historic accomplishments of Black Canadians, like Mary Ann Shadd Cary who was Canada’s first-ever female publisher and a prominent school teacher and owner. In the absence of proper historical recognition, racist narratives stemming from enslavement persist in which Black people are dehumanized and considered ‘aggressive’ and ‘unintelligent.’ The Centre is key, because it is undoing these narratives through authentic learning and relevant curriculum that includes Black excellence.
Black Canadian Studies
One field that was birthed out of the erasure of Black Canadian excellence is Black Canadian Studies (BCS). BCS is a recent field of study that was only brought to the forefront by Black educators who noticed the lack of emphasis on Black Canadian history. Unlike the United States, which has fields such as African American Studies, Canada is behind in its research of the history of Black people in Canada. This stems from the effort to erase the accountability requested by Black Canadians who experience racism at the hands of the government and other powerful institutions. This practice also erases the achievements of Black people as their struggles and their achievements are disregarded. There are only a select number of BCS programs in Canada, one of which is the York University certificate program. This program can be taken while a student is completing their undergraduate studies or can be completed on its own. In it, students will learn about the “histories, cultures and experiences of Black Canada,” and also about the excellence of Black Canada.
In conclusion, the Centre of Black Excellence is the first of its kind in Canada. It’s time to call out inequity and celebrate those from the past who provided progress in the lives of Black Canadians today. It is also time to celebrate and acknowledge the existence of Black culture in Canada since the 1700s, and those who are excellent for being courageously Black in a time when that was hated for being so. That is why the Centre is a pivotal moment in doing all these things. Making it a place that is protecting the past, present and futures of Black Canadians. The Centre’s everyday work with students plus its anti-racism research will aid in closing the educational gap between white and Black students, while also supporting student needs.
To keep up with the Centre, be sure to follow them on Twitter for future opportunities or research!