Education

These Systems Aren't Built For Us

2 January 2022

"Reflections on my first term as a Vancouver School Board Trustee."

By Jennifer Reddy

Schools are where a range of social, economic, and political issues converge. They highlight inequities in housing and food security. They are spaces where immigration experiences shed light on the dire underfunding of public services for children and families. Schools are a strong indicator of the health of our communities. They show us who is being served, heard, and included.

As a youth worker with the Vancouver School Board, I witnessed these experiences firsthand. I saw the relentless efforts of educators to meet the increasing, visible, intersecting, and complex needs of students with decreasing budgets and aging infrastructure.

On a typical day as a youth worker, I would work with a team to support newcomer youth who were making every effort to settle into their new lives in Canada. They were doing this while juggling a range of demands and roles, including being a teenager, caregiving for siblings, translating and interpreting for parents, coping with the traumas of displacement, building English literacy skills, navigating a new city and country, finding employment, and trying to ‘catch up’ to educational expectations.

The experience told me so much about the issues young people in this city are facing, often alone, and often in violation of their rights as children and youth.

The lack of connections with community, family, and self impacts students’ confidence, self-esteem, and participation in schools. At work, I saw an abundance of spaces and opportunities that creative colleagues and community partners made available to meet the needs of newcomer youth, from bus transportation to gardening on school grounds. I knew it was possible to do better. I knew that our actions needed to be system-wide.

Today, as an elected school board trustee, I couldn’t be more fortunate to hold a seat at the school board table. I’m there to amplify these daily realities that are reflections of systemic and institutional gaps — gaps that trustees can both create and dismantle. But my first term on the board has revealed to me that significant inner work at the board level is needed to effect the change I was elected to support.

A seat at the table

Growing up in the East Kootenays with immigrant parents, I recall being ashamed for not ‘fitting in’, for being different. I remember feeling guilty that my parents couldn’t participate in school activities. I remember feeling embarrassed when I, or anyone in my family, experienced racism in our community, school, and workplaces.

We struggled through it together as a family. Today, I feel confident in knowing that our contributions are not only important, but also in service of our wider community; it’s important for racialized people like us to engage with civic life. After all, if people like me can’t see themselves at decision-making tables that make space for people with different views and experiences, then nothing changes and the same people get included and excluded.

My parents migrated to Canada for better access to decision-making, education, and employment. From a young age, they shared their value for democracy and representation, so I saw myself taking up space and speaking truth to power every chance I got, even before being able to vote. From watching the federal budget as a family to giving a partisan presentation on the need to look beyond coal mining, my parents encouraged me to engage critically with my local community from the start, well before I was in my teens.

The 2018 municipal election wasn’t my first time running for an elected position, nor my only avenue for making change. I am in a lifelong journey to explore pathways for social change, identify barriers, find opportunities to speak up, and actively challenge myself to get out of the way.

When I put my name on the ballot in 2018, I was excited to speak truth about my motivations to run, to shed light on what I wanted to see change. I ran because I wanted the process of decision-making to be open, clear, transparent, and accountable. I wanted it to be easier for people to navigate public systems and have their voices heard, regardless of literacy or digital literacy. I wanted public education to centre the voices and experiences of children, youth, and educators. I wanted the public to see the power of accountable governance coupled with advocacy.

I was eager to hear the questions, ideas, and concerns that residents had. On the campaign trail, I learned about the pressures families face in trying to get their kids into school and access childcare. I heard about the challenges educators face in delivering the curriculum while supporting students who are experiencing food insecurity, living in unsuitable housing, or having difficulty accessing transportation and services.

Watching the votes roll in with volunteers was empowering and nerve-wracking: how could I possibly represent all these voices? What about those that didn’t vote for me, how could I reach them? On the campaign trail, I’d met plenty of people who weren’t interested in school board issues. While we’d talked about schools as a public good, I knew I would have to work hard to make public education accessible, and to highlight the ways that we are all impacted by school board decisions.

It’s a lot of work to get enough votes for a seat on the school board and yet, the representation is still insufficient. I’m seeing a wide gap between diverse representation and equitable governance.

Inequitable board dynamics

At the Vancouver School Board table, I have been able to highlight the ways in which so-called democratic institutions suppress perspectives that don’t serve the status quo. I see how questions and suggestions for making board content and processes more accessible are treated as a challenge. I am increasingly worried about the voices of students, parents, caregivers, educators, and the public that are not only being silenced, but that are actively unwelcome at the decision-making table.

To hold this seat as a school trustee is a privilege. To be entrusted by the public to open the doors of decision-making and make sense out of the daily experiences and outcomes of our public schools is a privilege and responsibility.

More than ever, I’m motivated to return to the board table with increased rigour, bringing my understanding on how to stay grounded in my purpose and values to keep public education public.

I want to ensure that Vancouver’s schools are valued as the important institutions I know they can be. I know trustees can advocate harder. We can push harder for the infrastructure, support, and resources that we need.

But we need to raise the profile of what is going on at the school board table — and how board dynamics are creating inequitable conditions for justice and equity-seeking work to take place.

To be entrusted by the public to open the doors of decision-making and make sense out of the daily experiences and outcomes of our public schools is a privilege and responsibility.
– Jennifer Reddy

We need this to be different

During the day, I hold a full-time regular job. In the evenings and on the weekends, I engage in my school board duties.

I find it extremely distracting to my purpose as an elected trustee to receive personal phone calls from fellow trustees and staff members asking about my likes on social media, whether Black parents are coming to a meeting, or what my real motivations are for bringing forward a motion to consult host First Nations on school land use plans. In these calls, people have described my intentions as ‘colonial’ while proceeding to quote from Robert’s Rules of Order. I have always believed that these discussions are meant to happen in public at the board table, not beforehand in private conversations.

It is one thing to try and improve agenda items coming up for discussion in our meetings. It is entirely something else to prevent my items from being debated completely.

Moments in this position have made me question my role, my responsibility, and my experiences on the board.

They have made me question whether my Charter Rights and Freedoms are being violated: as one of nine trustees, is it okay to voice my individual perspective on a topic if I do so ensuring I am not speaking on behalf of the board? Is it my responsibility to censor what students of colour might say at the committee meeting? Is it my responsibility to protect the status quo of the institution that may not be ready to admit that our efforts toward anti-racism and discrimination are insufficient? What are the unique expectations that I am asked to fulfill? Is this an appropriate and efficient use of elected decision makers?

These questions fill my mind as I work to gather perspectives on important topics in preparation for board meetings and discussions.

I know these issues don’t begin and end with me. These are institutional and systemic issues that demonstrate the slow burn of structural racism borne out of a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability that affect and discount all of us.

We know how individuals are pressured and rewarded to protect the system either by towing the line, not raising issues of concern or ethical dilemmas, or not speaking up about injustices.

We know how the pandemic has illuminated long-standing and deeply embedded inequities. We know that addressing these inequities does not depend on personal identities, but rather on the actions people take to identify and address inequities and injustices.

We need this to be different. We cannot allow systems of decision-making to exclude and alienate us.

Too often, I hear incredible leaders say that they don’t know enough to lead or to take a stance on inequities and injustice. But this is the system working to maintain the status quo.

This is where you’ll find me, building the capacity of individuals and our communities to not only identify, but dismantle the inequities and injustices that we witness and experience and that are affecting all of us.

These systems weren’t built for us. It’s up to us to challenge and change them. I am committed to contributing to the growth of new systems that serve communities and individuals more fully and justly. ■

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