Living in the age of incivility – Justice, not Charity why WE doesn’t work for our schools

Everything we do these days needs to be seen through the lens of justice. In this second article on living in the age of incivility, I want to focus on the tools we use in our schools to deal with injustice.

One of the main tools for many years has been the WE Foundation. Fortunately, the days of WE dominance seem to be coming to an end. Unfortunately, this is not happening because people, educators finally saw through the mist of corporate charity but because they got caught in a national scandal.

I was always quietly appalled by the spell WE held over our schools. WE was always about making us feel good, making us look like we were doing something to roll back poverty in the Global South. To my mind, that was never the case. WE never questioned the imbalance that exists in the world and they certainly never exposed the incredible role we have played as settlers and exploiters here in Canada and in the Global South.

They were the good story. That is why boards like my own (Ottawa Catholic) were happy to sign up with WE and why they encouraged participation in their extravaganzas for students and even booked them for one of our annual staff conference days (Christian Community Day).

We never questioned their lack of analysis or their unwillingness to talk about the root causes of poverty and injustice in our world. As Catholics with a rooting in social justice, we should have known better, but how many Catholics have ever examined the social justice roots of our faith? In the vast majority of cases, it was more important to make sure our students felt good about themselves. Rarely did educators and administrators take the next step to challenge the roots of injustice, racism, poverty, and inequality that are endemic in our society.

Look at the quote by Pope Francis below – this is what we should be talking about in our schools – it is not about feeling good about yourself, it is all about becoming uncomfortable with your wealth and privilege and recognizing how we have been the designers of an unequal, unjust world.

… the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity. It must be reiterated that “the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others.” To speak properly of our own rights, we need to broaden our perspective and to hear the plea of other peoples and other regions than those of our own country. We need to grow in a solidarity which “would allow all peoples to become the artisans of their destiny,” since “every person is called to self-fulfillment.

– Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 190

We can go beyond this to look at WE as the Canadian exemplar of white saviouism. David Jefferess, a UBC scholar writes about this in his article, WE Charity and the white saviour complex.

White saviourism is not simply a personality trait that critics can attribute to the Kielburgers or voluntourists alone. In his explanation of the “white savior industrial complex,” Teju Cole does not distinguish between genuine humanitarians and self-seeking ones, but focuses on the construction and material causes of global poverty. Cole explains that the white saviour looks at places like Africa and sees only desperation, consequently failing to understand why the misery exists in the first place.

This is an important article and it would be a good one to read to get a sense of how we have been taken in by WE. We have been lazy and we have not wanted to think things through. We don’t really want to examine the roots of poverty, racism, inequality, and injustice. We certainly do want to become uncomfortable.

Corporations have adopted We to acquire a ‘brand halo‘, a way to attach any the company on to the coattails of WE at rallies that focus mainly on intermediate aged school kids. The WE rallies have been a great way to encourage brand loyalty, sell more soap. As Vice writes:

A page of WE’s website, advertising Marc Kielburger as a paid speaker, touts his insights into “purposeful and profitable business strategies.” The page, which has since been updated to remove that language, boasts that Marc can help teach strategies to “inspire brand fanatics to stay loyal to you, your company, and your cause (and) add a halo effect to your product.”

Vice: Justin Trudeau’s Billion-Dollar Scandal Is a Story of Power, Branding, and Charity July 2020

WE has nothing really to do with changing our mindsets. It is a cynical organization that believes the only way to talk about the Global South to students is by putting on a rock show. Bring out the celebrities and we will change the world. After the show, you can go home, feel good and forget about the global imbalance that grows every day. No need to question the status quo, you just got a t-shirt.

Next, incivility in the school system – don’t ever rock the boat.

Living in the age of incivility – the impact on racialized youth in Ottawa

Dempsey’s community programs have been closed to local youth at the whim of an uncaring city

In this series, I am writing about incivility, injustice, and in this case racism in our local community. This article has a lot to do with racism – a word we don’t like using in Canada. But when you enact a policy that negatively impacts young racialized people that is racism and it needs to be called out.

It is hard to write about stories where poor, racialized communities are forgotten in a time where their needs are not seen as important or even relevant.

The story. In the east end of the city, a community rink was converted into a homeless men’s shelter at the height of the pandemic. As parents and community members began to organize protest against the usurping of their place for hockey and pickleball, the City of Ottawa Housing Department looked for a new location.

They fixed on Dempsey Community Centre.

Dempsey Community Centre in the heart of social housing in the near-by Alta Vista neighbourhood was chosen as a replacement. You can read about this here in the only article written about all this in Ottawa. The article makes no comment, no editorial, no judgment on the move. The article misses the important fact that local families were not consulted even though they had signed their kids up for recreational programs with Christie Lake Kids, a city-wide foundation that runs recreational programming in low-income neighbourhoods.

In better days, Dempsey was a place for Russel Heights youth to play and take part in important community partnerships. Here is an example from two years ago where the Ottawa Police played basketball with Russel Heights youth at Dempsey.

I hope you watch this video and read this article from the Ottawa Citizen – ‘Ball is life:’ How Ottawa police are building relationships through basketball.

The beauty of Dempsey is that kids could walk over from their homes and participate in a wide variety of programming through Christie Lake Kids – all that programming is now gone.

Understandably, Christie Lake Kids has been silent about the loss of one of their key centers for community programming. What can they possibly do? For them at this point to advocate for their youth would risk losing more programming from the City of Ottawa.

This is one of the essential problems with programs based on charity. It is always a handout. We do this because we are in power and we can – but don’t ever challenge us. Don’t ever question our decisions.

The City Councillor Jean Cloutier has defended the move saying all the right people were consulted, no one objected. His level of advocacy for marginalized youth in his own community is a disgrace. When contacted he assured us that he had followed all the requisite steps. His conscience is clear.

These are racialized youth, these are underrepresented families. These are people with no power. This is a racist act made by people who have nothing to fear – no one speaks up for these people. They know they don’t have to worry about decisions that affect people in this neighbourhood.

A few weeks ago there was a huge furor on the local  Ottawa CBC when a backyard youth Shakespeare group was shut down by local by-law officers for making too much noise. We heard about this story every second day. A quick Google search turned up 18 separate articles about this! Through the advocacy of people with power, the troupe was moved to one of the premier theatres in Ottawa to complete their performances.

Good for them but there were some big differences between the troupe and Russell Heights. They came from a well-off mainly white neighbourhood. They got the support of local (CBC) media because it was a ‘good’ story. They had an effective voice. They had real power.

The kids and families have none of these advantages. CBC showed very little interest in the story – who cares about poor neighbourhoods in Ottawa. The press coverage was minimal – again who cares?

Situations like this make me angry. The injustice and overt racism in this story are incredible. This is tragic.

Yes, this is an example of the growing incivility of our times. Should the men’s shelter exist – of course. Did it need to displace fully enrolled children’s programs at Dempsey – of course not.

This is a case of inattention by City staff and a City Councillor who really didn’t care. Why should they? They knew no one in Russel Heights would protest. These people are used to stuff like this, why would they object?

No one sees them.

If people don’t start caring in the times of COVID when will they start caring? Why can’t we be understanding and compassionate for all communities, not just the rich, white ones? Why does no one seem to care?

 

 

The Class Struggle Podcast – Where We Come From

I think it might be good if we all introduce our perspective on things, like where we’re coming from. We all have unique places that we are at and I think it would be good for listeners to get to know some of that!

Stephen Hurley

This is beginning to take shape. We have a name for our political voice podcast – Class Struggle thanks to Heather Swail and several co-hosts – Heather Swail, Derek Rhodenizer and Stephen Hurley. Stephen has made the suggestion that we all make our views and background known to listeners so our bias is evident. We are planning to do this on our first podcast next Thursday, December 27th at 8:00PM.

While this will be an interesting ‘live’ experiment, I think it would be a great idea to put down here some of our thoughts and ideas on where we are coming from. It takes a while to figure this out and at least for me I do better writing down some of these ideas first. If the other co-hosts want to do the same I will roll out their ideas here as part of this post.

I will start. My political beliefs are informed first by my faith. It is hard to believe this is still true because I no longer attend church on any regular basis, but I was brought up Catholic and I taught in the Catholic system for 31 years. Within that structure, I was mainly influenced by Catholic Social Teaching and the life and struggles of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a cleric and martyr from El Salvador who was canonized just a few months ago.

What was truly formative for me have been my travels to Latin America with students and teachers. Over the past twenty years, I have travelled there many times and I have learned lots about poverty, injustice and the abuse of power by the privileged.

All of this has given me a strong sense of community and a better appreciation of the importance of speaking out against hypocrisy and injustice. Working at my last school, St. Anthony here in Ottawa gave me a wonderful opportunity to put some of these beliefs into practice. It also led to lots of run-ins with my superiors which eventually led to my retirement. There was more work to do at my school, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to work for an organization that valued compliance over social justice.

Now I have been retired for two years and I have spoken out much more since that time. The issues I write about are diverse, but anything that smacks of injustice and the abuse of power catches my attention. Apart from writing, I try to do something positive by supporting Christie Lake Kids, an organization here in Ottawa that works to transform the lives of low-income children through recreation, arts and leadership programs.

I do think that teachers have a duty to speak out. We as educators play a unique role in a democratic society. We are responsible for passing on to a new generation the laws, customs and beliefs of our society. We are leaders by the very fact that we hold such an immense responsibility to the youth in our society.

This view is not shared by our large corporate-like school boards. Loyalty means to be silent and compliance is the key. I think we are selling our educators short in this corporate culture and teachers need to have the freedom to express their opinions and speak out against injustice when they see it.

That is where I am coming from and I hope in our new show we will tackle some of the big political issues that swirl around us in this society. Maybe not all educators see this as a role we should assume. That is fine, but I would love to hear people actually say this.

I will keep this blog rolling out new comments from now until our first podcast this Thursday. You can write a comment at the end of this blog or DM me and I will add your material to this post. This sometimes can actually change the nature of a blog post. I am all for that – the voice of educators is so important – let it be heard.

This being a rolling blog, I am adding comments directly to this post. Here is a comment from co-host Heather Swail.

 

Heather Swail here. My political ideas and opinions were at first informed by school and community. I too was educated in the Catholic system. A number of my high school teachers were CND active or former sisters who were very involved in the lives of the disadvantaged in Montreal; at least three of my teachers had lived in Central America and followed and spoke about liberation theology and social justice. Their few stories – they were humble about their experiences – and the videos and news items they showed us inspired me to learn more about the world and to study politics in university. I did an MA in Public Administration in social policy and knew that my vocation was to work in the public or community sectors. Since my 20’s I have participated in community projects and initiatives that have attempted to develop opportunities for those with little power. I was approached once to run as a school trustee, but was not interested in that life, especially with a young family. My style typically is more diplomatic and questioning, rather than pedantic and being on the podium (family members may have a different opinion!)

I have been formed as much as by what I heard, learned and witnessed, as by what I did not hear. Ours was not a political family, neither parent spoke about politics. But there was a strong current within the larger family of pro-status quo and business. On a few occasions, when young, I was told not to ask so many questions. Paul and I raised our children to be aware of politics and inequalities. Perhaps too much at times, they would remind us.

Now, as an educator of 12- and 13-year olds, I prefer to ask questions and see where kids go with their observations and answers. I am more of a storyteller than a lecturer, I think. I will directly instruct about contentious or difficult issues and then ask students to explore further. By exposing younger people to information about what is going on in this world – good and bad – I am giving them the chance to see beyond what is apparent and certain. Children this age are very passionate about equality and justice – they just need help finding the stories.

Adding to our post is Stephen Hurley. We now have three of our hosts writing about brings them to this podcast.

I’m Stephen Hurley and, after retiring from 30 years of teaching with Ontario’s Dufferin Peel District School Board, I continue to be passionate about the conversations in education.

When it comes to teacher voice, I have some very specific ideas, but I look forward to this voicEd Radio series in order that these ideas might be challenged, deepened and, quite possibly, modified.

I have to admit that I have always resisted any monolithic characterization of voices in education. I bristle when politicians, union leaders and others make blanket statements like, “Teachers believe this” or “our members will actively fight for this.” I understand the efficiency and even the effectiveness of making statements like this but, for me, they undermine the fact that everyone who walks this planet has a unique perspective that is formed over the course of a lifetime by myriad events, experiences and encounters.

I think that, if we’re going to take the idea of teacher voice seriously, especially in the public square, we have to be prepared to make space for the individual stories that give way to a sense of subtlety and nuance. Our current conversations in education, especially at the political level, are not informed by these subtleties and shades of gray.

I look forward to entering into the Class Struggle conversations on which we are about to embark. I look forward to the honesty, the discomfort and even the disagreement that comes from opening up a space like this.