Looking back on my educational journey, I can count on one hand how many Black educational staff I have encountered in elementary and high school. Not only did this impact my experiences with mentors, but it also impacted the way I was treated in the education system. Without the presence of Black educational staff, there was a lack of understanding regarding my experiences as a young Black male. As a result, I was labelled very quickly in school. I had no one in the education system who knew my history or understood my identity that could advocate for me. Regardless of my ability to achieve academically, my teachers and principals wanted to stream me into behavioural classrooms when I was young; but I was just a kid trying to manage everything I had going on in my life. My teachers and principals constantly focused on my behaviour. I remember the constant attention being confusing and frustrating as a kid; I would think, “why are they always picking on me?” I felt like I was being targeted all of the time. Instead of working with me and my identity, I was boxed into different groups. Luckily, I had my mom. She advocated for me tirelessly. If it weren’t for my mom, I would have had a different experience in the education system. My mom’s knowledge of the educational system helped me to navigate the system in a positive way. Even when they tried to tell me I had to do certain things or see certain people, my mom knew about the system, so I wasn’t sent in every direction. But I know not everyone is as lucky.
I try to remember that not every family knows how the education system should work in the work that I do within the schools. I try to be a caring adult for all children and youth with whom I work daily. Given my experiences, I started working in the education system to support kids in a way that I wished I had been supported as a Black student. I work with families and children in a way that centers their identities, and I approach my work with a keen eye towards equity and diversity. I know that some of my colleagues strive to do the same, regardless of their race and ethnicity. Our conversations focus on how we can continue to support children, youth, and their families in equitable ways. These conversations are what makes my work exciting and rewarding. However, in my daily practice, I see many challenges that our students experience in the education system, some of which parallel my experiences – especially when considering the gaps in processes for supporting students. So, all these years later, I am still wondering, is the school system doing enough?
I share my identity and experience in the education system to practice reflexivity in this research. I am in a unique position of being a part of the Black community and working in the education system. As someone who works in the system, this research has highlighted the challenges Black students face in education – and how the system sometimes exacerbates pre-existing risks and challenges faced by these young people. It has made me more intentional with the way that I work with Black families and students. It has challenged me to think about how I can help my team support Black students in ways that pay close attention to our history, oppression, discrimination, and trauma.
In carrying out this research, there is a level of excitement, which then transitions to frustration. I experience moments of hope, which then transition to moments of despair. There are moments of, “this is it! This is good”, which then transition to, “this is it? Is this good?”. It was interesting to hear educators speak about supporting Black children and youth through similar experiences my family and I had been through. Again, it gives me hope that these issues are being interrogated and discussed thoroughly, like: Who makes the decisions for Black families and students? How are decisions made? What are the processes to go about making these decisions? But, it also illuminated the same hardships that I remember experiencing: Having decisions made for me without my input or not knowing why I was experiencing what I was experiencing. These interviews have illuminated that the education system has many strengths and a lot of selfless educators, but many gaps in their processes to supporting and helping Black students navigate the system. To support our Black communities through equitable ways, the barriers that Black students face need to be addressed and mitigated. Some of our educators are trying. But is the system as a whole doing enough?
Kadeem Brown is child and youth worker and a research assistant on the RCYP project.