By Nicole Kaler, Chair, BCEdAccess Society
At the end of Black History Month, I am taking time for reflection on Black Excellence and Black Futures.
In honour of this month, I am going to dig a little deeper than usual and share how my identity as a Black parent impacts my vulnerability as a community member and part of the leadership team of BCEdAccess. I also want to share a personal experience that has informed my approach to advocacy with our education system, as we are also at the end of Inclusive Education Month.
My parents immigrated to Canada from the Caribbean. They left one colonised land for another with hopes of better opportunities. Where they came from the school system had many Black teachers and educational leaders. They were therefore unprepared for the struggle that came with being Black in school in BC.
My early memories of Kindergarten are of being paralysed by the way that the teacher spoke to me, and having her say that I was “slow” (even using the ‘r’ word). I was often separated from the class because of my “slowness”, not out of the room, just outside of the circle. I also did different activities by myself. At some point, I felt so sick everyday that my parents stopped taking me to school. Eventually, my parents put me in a private school that they could not afford. The majority of my very early school memories are of crying and being distressed because I wasn’t smart and/or white. I don’t know how long it took for school to impact me this way, but definitely by 6 years old, I hated everything about myself.
My educational journey started poorly, but that wasn’t how it continued or ended. My point in sharing is to explain that I approach my work in advocacy with a personal familiarity with oppression in education, beyond the experiences that I have had with my disabled child.
My lens- disability and race
I used to keep my Blackness in the background as a parent advocate. I did not want to “complicate” conversations about equitable education for disabled students. I know from personal experience that it is easier to have conversations with my non Black peers about ableism than about anti-Black racism. Between defensiveness and denial, I still hold onto the reality that disability advocacy by families is a historical powerhouse. Families put an end to the institutionalisation of loved ones, while residential schools remained open. The injustice of families separated because of disability was rightly ended, but that did not naturally extend to First Nations families. and all children.
Rights-based advocacy for equitable education for disabled students is my passion, but justice is my goal. Justice takes into account how identities like race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexual orientation, affect a disabled person’s experience. By extension, as parents/ guardians/caregivers, the response to our advocacy is also affected by our identity.
When working in advocacy circles, the reality is that the general attraction to “sameness” means that even when the focus is on anti-oppression or rights, the executive make-up and public representation in these organizations normally look like the government institutions that we are challenging to be better. In addition, there is a dominant culture in our power structures and they are most comfortable working with people like themselves and making changes that are relatable or of benefit to them personally.
I have observed our reluctance as a community to understand the need for intersection in our work, but in the spirit of Black History Month and having both disabled and non-disabled Black children complete their K-12 education here in BC, what I feel free to say is that to be effective our advocacy recognises that:
- Both racism and ableism in a classroom look like assumptions and stereotypes leading to academic limitations.
- Both racism and ableism are compounded by the lack of empathy that people have when they won’t relate to someone who is different.
Ableism is interconnected with other systems of oppression, and true justice comes when we begin to appreciate that a disabled person who is a member of another affinity group has unique experiences, as do their families and those who advocate on their behalf.
I am very proud of being a part of BCEdAccess and working for justice. I come ready to support every family as my approach is the culmination of every microaggression and overt racist act experienced by me, my children and my family.
I hope that everyone had an informed Black History Month, and that we continue to strive to be a community space where we are open to acknowledging our differences, alongside our common challenges and goals.
Absolutely. Dismantling the power paradigm is the only way towards justice. Thanks for sharing your courage.