Education featured Governance Racism

Wayne Desmond: My long search for safe spaces for Black learners

Halifax Regional School Board/YouTube

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The idea of Black spaces and the need for inclusive education have always been important to me. Why is it that it wasn’t  until I went to university that I began to feel fully validated as a Black learner?

Inside the Black community we can speak openly and freely, without being silenced or interrupted because others feel uncomfortable. In our education system we don’t enjoy that freedom. Our classrooms lack diversity, representation and safe spaces for non-white learners. 

In my case, as a resident of New Glasgow it was not until grade 11 that I was able to take African Canadian Studies, which turned out not to be about the long and rich history of African ancestry in Canada. Instead, we were taught about African empires and the culture of Africa. I wanted to learn more about the African Nova Scotian presence, history, culture and activists who paved the way for future generations. 

When I started my undergraduate at Saint Mary’s University, I had the expectation that I would be exposed to more African Canadian and African Nova Scotian history, that would be taught by professors of colour. However, that was not the case. It wasn’t until I took Dr. Benita Bunjun’s 3rd year Qualitative Research Methods class that I felt my voice, my struggle and the pain that is deeply rooted in the Black experience and community was acknowledged. If it was not for Dr. Benita Bunjun my undergraduate experience and education would have been completely Eurocentric. 

My pre-law course at Dalhousie University in the spring of 2020 was in a class of 11 students, a mixture of students with African and Indigenous roots. This was the first time that I learned about my history from an Afrocentric point of view in an educational environment. Outside of the richness in curriculum that reflected us as learners, the welcoming environment and conversation among classmates provided an inclusive educational experience and safe space for non-white voices, which I think every student of color should experience at some point in their educational endeavors.

Currently I am a first year Law student at Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law. When entering Law School, I was nervous how I was going to fit in as a Black student. My fear was not to see my experience as an African Nova Scotian reflected in the curriculum, and how my peers were going to respond. However,  professors incorporate the Black Lives Matter movement into course materials and fellow students acknowledge the disadvantages in society that a person of colour faces. 

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us

For the last 400 years African Nova Scotians have faced a global pandemic called systemic racism in this country. However, it’s not for a lack of trying that we face such an absence of Black spaces, inclusive education and African Nova Scotian educators in so much of our education system. 

For decades activists and educators from the African Nova Scotian community have advocated for an education system that supports African Nova Scotian learners. 

On November 30, 1968 the Black United Front (BUF) was founded to address some of the social inequalities African Nova Scotians were experiencing. BUF activists recommended essential strategies required to ensure the academic achievements and success of African Nova Scotian learners. These early efforts by BUF were instrumental in paving the road Black learners.

In 1994, the Black Learners Advisory Committee “BLAC”, published a report that examined the social inequalities and systemic barriers that African Nova Scotian learners faced in the education system, and how it impacts their academic success. This report is known as The BLAC Report on Education: Redressing Inequalities – Empowering Black Learners. 

The BLAC report contained recommendations to provide African Nova Scotian learners with the academic support they required to be successful throughout their educational journeys. Unfortunately, many of the recommendations were not implemented by the Nova Scotia Department of Education. 

Fifteen years later, in November of 2009, a report entitled Reality Check was published. Reality Check highlights the specific deficits still contributing to the underachievement of African Nova Scotian learners. Reality Check reviewed some of the key program areas in the BLAC Report for their effectiveness in enhancing the educational opportunities and achievement of African Nova Scotian learners.  

Although the Department of Education implemented some of this report’s recommendations, there has only been minimal progress. African Nova Scotian learners are still slipping through the cracks.  

If anything, COVID-19 has increased the urgency. Many of the services for African Nova Scotian learners that were once readily available are now unavailable or restricted. 

After all these years, it fills me with a feeling of pride to finally be exposed to an inclusive educational environment, where I can see my own experiences reflected. When I hear professors speak about Mr. Burnley “Rocky” Jones and Justice Corrine Sparks, it tells me that there is always hope.

For the generations that came before me, I say thank you for your work and dedication to the cause. To my generation, remember to keep pushing, you will bear the fruit of your labor. To the generation that comes after me I say, remember the shoulders you stand on, and know that you are capable of amazing things. 

See also: Thandiwe McCarthy: The darkest lesson – my education history

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One Comment

  1. Wayne Desmond what a fantastic read of words. To the point where it makes me say Ohhh gosh, this is so true. I know and respect the position you are in and I pray for you to continue. I’m sure you will be in high places. God Bless you.

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