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How a group of Black students are fighting racism in Greater Victoria school districts

Current and former Victoria high school students are hosting workshops with the hopes that they can make schools safer and more inclusive for Black students

Hanna Hett
June 17, 2022
Community
Features

How a group of Black students are fighting racism in Greater Victoria school districts

Current and former Victoria high school students are hosting workshops with the hopes that they can make schools safer and more inclusive for Black students

Hanna Hett
Jun 17, 2022
Black Youth Empowerment. Photo: Nathan Smith
Black Youth Empowerment. Photo: Nathan Smith
Community
Features

How a group of Black students are fighting racism in Greater Victoria school districts

Current and former Victoria high school students are hosting workshops with the hopes that they can make schools safer and more inclusive for Black students

Hanna Hett
June 17, 2022
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How a group of Black students are fighting racism in Greater Victoria school districts
Black Youth Empowerment. Photo: Nathan Smith

When Aisha Ismail started high school, Black History Month wasn’t acknowledged. In Grades 9 and 10, she pushed it aside. But when she got to Grade 11, she decided to do something about it. In February of that year, she started a Black History Month campaign.

Ismail coordinated with a teacher to access the school monitors. Then, she held herself accountable—setting her own deadlines—and created a series of presentations. For each day of Black History Month that year, she highlighted different Black Canadians from a diversity of backgrounds, including athletes, scientists, artists, and politicians (such as Rosemary Brown, the first Black woman elected to BC parliament).  

Aisha Ismail. Photo: Nathan Smith

Now entering her third year at the University of British Columbia, Ismail is still advocating for Black representation and inclusion in Victoria high schools. She’s a member of Black Youth Empowerment (BYE), a two-year-old group composed of six current and former students from the Greater Victoria and Saanich school districts. 

The goal of the group is in its name: they want to empower Black youth from the lens of Black youth.

Anti-Black racism in the BC school system

According to a report released this year by the Issamba Centre and the African Arts & Culture Community Contributor Society, over 75% of survey respondents reported experiencing anti-Black racism from school officials, teachers, or peers. The society had polled nearly 2,000 BC residents, 1,500 of them of African descent.

Further, 90% of respondents said that representation of Black history was dismal in school curriculums, with the transatlantic slave trade often the only part taught. They said there was a lack of “relevant and positive histories of Black people, cultures, and models.” 

Smith Oduro-Marfo, the report’s project manager and lead writer, says that these results don’t come as a surprise. There isn’t enough Black representation, inclusion, or support in all tenets of society, he said, and “The same people making the policies [for all of society] are the same people making policies for schools.”

This is something that Ismail and other BYE members are all too aware of—from teachers reading out racial slurs in class while reading a story, to having the entire class stare at them when a documentary about Africa is turned on, to hearing students sing the N-word when it plays in popular music. It’s something they are trying to change.

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Creating safe and inclusive spaces for Black students 

After forming in 2020, BYE spent the next several months planning their first workshop for Black high school students. In the spring of 2021, they hosted it over Zoom. There, they shared with attendees the racist incidents they’ve experienced, how they dealt with them at the time, and what they wished they had done differently.

They also gave practical advice. For example, if a racist event happens, students don’t have to call the teacher out directly since it might not be safe to do so given the power imbalance. They could instead confide in a trusted adult who can bring it up for them at a school meeting.

The workshop also held space for discussion. “We realized that people had so much to say, and just so much to get off their chest,” Ismail said.

After hosting their first event, they decided that the next one would be to educate teachers, support staff, and administration on how to create safe spaces for Black students.

“People in power don’t really know how to handle these situations. So we might as well just tell them, from the point of view of Black students, what we feel that they’re doing wrong, and how we feel they can do better,” Ismail said.

Again, they spent several months planning the event and hosted it last month on Zoom. BYE members explained to the over 70 attendees what school staff can do in specific situations—like if one of their students says the N word.  

While Ismail was surprised that those in attendance asked few questions, she was happy that they were very open to listening—it gives her hope that the teachers care about what their students want to learn and how to make their learning environment comfortable.

BYE also explained the phenomenon of the adultification of Black youth, where they tend to be treated like adults, not kids. In Ismail’s final parting words at the workshop, she reminded them that “Black students are still students.”

“We’re still teenagers. We’re normal people, we just have part of identity as being Black, and that comes with unique experiences.”

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Hanna Hett
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