“We’ve been saying it doesn’t work, but now we’re actually talking in numbers. Now we’re saying, okay, parents of Black children in the Waterloo Region, are not going to take anybody’s s*** anymore.”
That’s what Shilan Woldemariam told me in our conversation with each other. She’s one of the co-founders of the newly formed Black Parents Council of KW, a group of parents and caregivers dissatisfied with school boards’ handling of racism. They held their first virtual meeting in early March. The group shared stories with each other about the racism their children faced, as well as the school’s poor response in addressing their issues.
News had recently broke on the Waterloo Catholic District School Board’s (WCDSB) decision to call the police on a four-year-old Black child’s ‘behavioural issues.’ This happened back in November of last year, but wasn’t publicly known until the family took it to the media in February. Ontario’s education minister has since ordered a review of the incident.
This virtual meeting also followed a controversial statement made by Loretta Notten, WCDSB director of education. “I would take umbrage to the allegation that there is systemic racism in our board,” Notten told CBC News KW. She later issued a statement apologizing for her comments.
Around the same time as the Catholic board’s phone call to police, a Waterloo Region District SChool Board (WRDSB) teacher was alleged to have disciplined two children in the younger primary grades by duct taping them to their desks. The teacher is now facing two counts of assault. One of the families involved has publicly stated they believed the incident to be racially motivated.
This was the type of environment in which the Black Parent Council of KW formed. The conversations they were having with each other was, sadly, nothing new. In our virtual conversation, the three co-founders told me this mirrored a lot of their own childhoods growing up in both the public and Catholic school systems. And they’ve been seeing it in their own children’s experiences. As they told me, plans for the group had existed back in 2021, but the WCDSB incident pushed their plans ahead of schedule.
How the band got together
It started with a conversation last year between Lena Thibeh and Shilan Woldemariam – best friends since high school – now both parents of young kids in the primary grades. Conversations on the usual topics you expect to hear. What are your plans for the kids this weekend? Are they still obsessed with that one Disney song or did they find a new obsession? How are they doing in school? That last question is a sticking point depending on your background.
“As a mom,” Shilan says, “you’re doing investigation all the time talking to other parents, looking at their experience and what their children are like and their experience and you realize, oh! My child is just a regular child.”
“We consider each other family,” Lena said. “So, we were going back and forth sharing these stories.”
They explained that their kids were often held to very different standards than white kids. In Shilan’s case, one of her children is neurodivergent who struggles in school. They weren’t the only neurodivergent ones in the primary school, let alone their class, but were kept under closer watch compared to others. It doesn’t take much for her to imagine the school making that same call to police over ‘behavioural issues.’
Meanwhile, Selam Debs had been working with the WRDSB parents council, trying to address the issues her then 16-year-old son was facing. She tells me that she saw a lot of racism and anti-Indigeneity from other white parents and caregivers in the parent council. Being an anti-racism educator, the various hoops the system had her leap through with little to show for had her thinking that there had to be a better way.
“So many of us are tired, and we’re exhausted, and we have so much on our plates,” she said. Despite also being friends with Shilan and Lena, they never had these types of discussions together till recently.
“In many ways, we’ve been experiencing it, I think, in silos,” Selam said. “We’re kind of going through it and so many of us are in survival [mode]. We’re trying to make things work.”
“We’re not interested in having weekly conversations with human rights [councils]. We just want to drop our kids off at school. They have a good day and come home, you know?” Shilan said.
A pattern of racism and abuse
All three of them shared their own experiences growing up in the school system. Often their experiences overlapped with each other and their children. Students and teachers saying the N-word. Crass jokes comparing Black people to monkeys. Being held under extra scrutiny compared to their white peers.
Selam had grown up in the diverse neighborhoods of Toronto with a single mother before moving to Kitchener attending Resurrection Catholic Secondary. This was around the mid-to-late-90s when Kitchener was much less diverse, and more overtly racist.
“I remember crying my eyes out to my mom and being like, no, why did you bring me here?” Selam said. “And so literally, it was like the day after high school ended, I left. I walked away, I paid my obligation. And an Ethiopian mom does not allow that. You don’t leave and go move away, but I was like, I can’t. I can’t do it anymore.” She felt she couldn’t really be herself in Kitchener, only returning to raise her son. She saw a lot of her experiences being mirrored in him.
“From the day he started to be in those systems, I have had to fight for him,” Selam said. She saw him being over-surveilled and over-policed at school. She saw him taken out of enrichment. She saw them take every bit of joy he had for school. “I had to work really hard to help him get that back.”
Part of her regrets that she had to raise him the way she has, pushing him to overachieve. That old adage of having to work twice as hard in order to be successful in white society. A mantra that is unfortunately rooted in reality. “Because we know that they will find any reason to be able to dehumanize our children,” she said.
Meanwhile, Lena, who is of an Afro-Palestinian background, her family immigrating to Canada and settling down in Kitchener back in the 70s. Shilan also immigrated to Canada from Eritrea in the mid-00s. Both of them would end up attending Cameron Heights Collegiate Institute from 2004-08.
“When you live amongst Black folks, you don’t know you’re Black, and then you come to this society and all of a sudden everyone makes you see that oh, you are black. You are different.” Shilan said. As a new arrival at the time, she got called the N-word the second week of school.
“I was in class, someone called me an N word. And I was like, Well, I guess we gonna have a fight.”
She and the girl were sent to the office before it escalated further. One of the vice principals at the time, and only Black staff member in the office, sent Shilan back to class and the girl who called her the N-word was expelled, as Shilan tells it. Then there was the streaming that happened with her. Like Selam, she also had Ethiopian-Eritrean parents who had huge aspirations for her.
“And my parents were like, you go to university, you’re going to be a doctor. Like there’s no other conversation,” Shilan said. “And I remember [in] grade 11 I’m like, ‘Okay, I need to figure that out.’”
Unfortunately for her, they had convinced her to take applied courses up until then, under the belief they were helping her, rather than pitying her. Being new to the country and still learning how to navigate everything, she trusted them. Nowadays she works as a social worker, but it took time to convince herself she could go to university.
“My entire experience in high school was letting me know and making sure that I was inferior, like I was not capable. I was not enough,” she said.
At that same time, Lena was facing similar struggles. She converted to Islam in high school and saw lot of Islamophobia during that time, getting beaten up, along with the usual racist slurs. She recalled one instant where she tried to explain to teacher why her Muslim friend couldn’t eat a pepperoni pizza.
“He was bawling his eyes out and ran to my classroom, told me to come in and try to explain it to her,” she said. The teacher doesn’t listen. Lena throws the pizza slice at her face. “And then I got suspended, but my parents were really proud of me (laughs).”
She no longer wears a hijab, but back in high school she followed the practice. It was her choice, but in a post 9/11 world, she was treated poorly for it. She mentions that she even took their concerns to the Waterloo Region Record.
For the first time as a student, the 15-year-old was wearing a traditional Islamic head scarf. She was observing hijab, dressing modestly in loose clothing, covering her hair and no longer sporting Gap sweaters, tank tops or hip-hugger jeans. Some of her friends were stunned.
“Next, she will go blow herself up, ” Thibeh recalled someone muttering.
Thibeh cries when she tells that story. She remembers the pain of rejection and how she felt ostracized.
“I grew up with these people since kindergarten and then they ditched me, ” she said.(The Waterloo Region Record, February 9, 2006)
Some of the teachers and staff were in on it too. Lena told me of one teacher who tried to take off her hijab and would pepper her with these Islamophobic questions.
Are you going to be one of four wives?
Did your parents force you to do this?
Are you being sexually assaulted?
Are they trying to marry you off?
On top of that, her grades had begun to slip – a combination of severe anxiety from attending school, family drama and grappling with her ADHD. She says other students were given some grace for their issues, often negotiating with teachers to pass by a single point. Lena would end up failing some courses by a single point.
A lot of these stories are unfortunately nothing new. They’ve floated around in Black and other racialized communities for years. What was disappointing was the lack of change since they left high school and the fact that their children are now having to navigate these systems.
Lena made it a point to acknowledge that there were people in the WRDSB trying to address systemic racism. That it was very much an uphill battle. Though they all were quick to point out how quickly schools would react if it were white children involved.
Both the public and Catholic school boards have been facing issues in addressing racism, hate and prejudice over the years. Hate motivated graffiti has shown up at schools; students sharing racist memes over social media; and senior staff not taking these issues seriously enough.
Notoriously, the WCDSB had dragged its feet when it came to raising the Pride flag. When the flag was finally raised in 2021, two school board trustees resigned from their positions, blaming “wokeism” and “identity politics” influencing the board’s decision.
The WRDSB for their part has not shied away from acknowledging that systemic racism exists.
“We are acknowledging that racism and anti-Black racism, along with many other forms of oppression, are real things that exist that we need to get better as a system. You know, we’ve heard it time and time again through our consultations of parents and families,” said jeewan chanicka, the director of education at the public school board told CBC News KW.
“We can’t change everything in an instant. I wish we could. It is our commitment. It’s hard work but it’s the right work.” chanicka has only taken over as director in September 2021. The board has launched a series of listening forums for parents and caregivers to bring forward their issues.
Following their first virtual meeting, the Black Parents Council of KW sent out a statement through social media, emailed the school boards and Ontario’s minister of education. In it, they accused both school boards — regardless of whether it’s intentional or not — of allowing violence and systemic oppression against Black, Indigenous, racialized, and other marginalized groups all while propping up a system of white supremacy. It takes aim at the racist hiring practices that continue to benefit white hires. It also calls out various school leaders and trustees.
- Third-party investigation into all racial violence in WRDSB & WCDSB
- All issues reported to human rights to be investigated by a third party
- Third-party investigator to be an anti-racism consultant and/or culturally
appropriate consultant (knowledgeable specifically in anti-black racism)
- Investigate inequitable policies and procedures that are harming Black,
Indigenous, racialized, Muslim and queer students.
- Development and implementation of antiracism policy for both WRDSB &
- Hire Black racial equity consultants to complete a full audit of both boards and
- Investigation into how policies and procedures are applied when holding teachers
& administrators who perpetuate racial violence accountable.
- Increase funding for CYWs, SWs, psychologists and culturally responsive mental
- Investigation into racially biased hiring procedures and practices
- Afro-centered and culturally responsive sources of knowledge
- Offer Saturday Afrocentric school for K-8 (ACBi)
- Removal of Mike Ramsay, Cindy Watson, Principal of John Sweeney Catholic
School and Loretta Notten, Director of the Waterloo Catholic District School
Alongside those demands were stories collected from their first meeting outlining further examples of systemic racism parents and their children were facing. One of those stories was by a South Asian mother who opened up to the media about the bullying her son had faced, and what she felt was a lack of support from the school.
“We recognize the intersection right between Blackness, Indigenousness, being racialized, being mixed race, being parents of Black children, the intersection of being Muslim, of being queer, of being disabled. And so for us, the way we see it is that we’re never going to turn away family members and caregivers who are experiencing racism within the system.” Selam said.