Helen Anderson is the Manager of Curriculum and Research at Harmony Movement, a not-for-profit organization that delivers educational programming on equity and inclusion to youth, educators, and social service providers, empowering them to become leaders of social change. Helen completed her Ph.D. in Theory and Policy Studies in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, focusing in her research on social justice and anti-racism education. She has taught at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University and has worked with numerous community service organizations to address issues such as racism, food security, gender-based violence, youth violence, and homophobia.
What is it that stands in the way of truly empowering educational experiences? Fear. Fear of who we could be and fear of who we are. Fear that others will misjudge us. Fear that their judgments will be correct. Fear of losing power. Although fear may make school equity movements feel slow and fruitless, hope can remind us of the powerful tools we have at our disposal that make a difference in youths’ lives.
At a time when educational equity is clouded with fear, I look for hope. I found that hope recently at a conference on education that transformed the way I think about teaching and learning. The Lost Lyrics Symposium, was a conference focused on creating an education system from the ground up, guided by the needs and input of young people, parents/guardians, and community members. It highlighted the need to address the disconnect between the lived realities of many students and their experiences of school.
Echoing the words of many of the youth with whom I’ve worked, the Symposium highlighted that for many students, each day at school can bring another attack on their sense of self-worth and dignity that they must struggle to resist. Whether it is from a teacher’s low expectations of them, an inability to see themselves represented in curricula, a lack of resources to support their success, institutional obstacles, the experience of racism or sexual harassment or homophobia or classism, many students experience extreme emotional, psychological, and physical violence on a daily basis.
While educating for equity and working towards larger systemic change, I also search for tools to equip students to overcome the immediate challenges they face day-to-day. The Lost Lyrics Symposium helped me consider one of my roles in these turbulent times is to teach for courage even in the midst of fear. For youth who may feel alienated from the school system based on race, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, indigenous status, gender identity, language, citizenship status, ability, mental health, faith, or other identity, it is the courage to be amazing, the courage to challenge injustice, the courage and strength to refuse to perpetuate divisions that have been created to keep people fighting each other and themselves rather than inequity, the courage to be inspired and to be inspiring.
For youth and teachers who benefit from the status quo, who are institutionally advantaged by the colour of our skin, our socio-economic status, our language, our abilities, or our sexual orientation, for example, it is the courage to examine ourselves, our own beliefs and actions, and how these may be perpetuating inequity. It is the courage to admit that we may be wrong, that we may have much to learn, that we may have done harm. It is the courage to listen to others, the courage to share. Perhaps this involves modelling the courage to name and challenge inequities within one’s own classroom, school, and community, while acknowledging and taking responsibility for the ways in which one may be complicit in inequity. Or perhaps it involves providing students with positive examples of people who have courageously defied obstacles, norms and expectations to change the shape of society.
Never before had I seen my students so engaged or enthusiastic as when I delivered a lesson on hidden histories of inequity in North America and the heroes who challenged these injustices. Initially, I was worried that my students would be bored and think it was just another dry history lesson. But to my surprise, they were full of questions. They wanted to know more about these people who helped shape the course of history despite the discrimination and institutional barriers they faced. My students were angry that they hadn’t been taught about this before. They were inspired by the courage of people who stood in the face of intimidation and fear and refused to back down. My students began to see themselves in people who changed history. They began to see themselves as people who changed history.
Teaching for courage can both dismantle power and create power. I saw what power looks like at the Lost Lyrics Symposium. Real power. And it is not something to be hoarded or reserved, but to be spread wide, and shared.
I saw what power looks like. Real power.
And I am humbled. I am in awe.
Power does not look like the ability to make someone fear you
Or to make someone feel ashamed
Power is not the ability to punish,
to withhold, or to take away
Power does not look like money
or the accumulation of things
Power does not look down the barrel of a gun
or down its nose at others
Power is not a skin colour
Or a sexual orientation
Or a gender identity
Or a faith
Or an ability
Or a language
Or a passport
Power does not look like force or coercion
Power looks like the ability to inspire
To breathe life into
Power looks like the ability to give hope
Power looks like the ability to affirm
To teach and to learn
*The opinions of our guest bloggers don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Equity Alliance at ASU, but they do raise important questions about issues of power, privilege, education, opportunity. We invite participation and the exchange of ideas with these blogs.