Parents and advocates say they’re worried about attempts to claw back diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) education initiatives in schools following the suicide of a former Toronto principal who attended a DEI workshop. Advocates say these initiatives must continue despite the tragedy, because they help create safe learning environments, especially for Black children.
Charline Grant, chief advocacy officer of Parents of Black Children, says support for Black students is critical because of the “racial violence” they experience in the education system. Grant says she has heard first-hand of the “pain and agony” students endure, citing examples of race-based bullying and higher rates of expulsions.
“We have countless Black children who’ve attempted suicide or have taken their lives, who have decided to be homeschooled because of fear of bullying and harassment,” Grant explained. “This is the violence that our children are facing.”
According to an Ontario Human Rights Commission report, Black students make up 10 per cent of the student population in Peel Region, but they’re 17.5 times more likely than white students to perceive discriminatory treatment in the application of suspension practices. The (OHRC) is developing an Action Plan to Tackle Anti-Black Racism in Education and released a comprehensive list of recommendations to do so.
The death of Richard Bilkszto
Richard Bilkszto committed suicide in July, more than two years after participating in a DEI workshop that turned tense. Bilkszto claimed he was berated in front of his colleagues and implicitly referred to as a white supremacist by the facilitator after the pair disagreed about racism in Canada. The trainer called Bilkszto’s objection “a ‘real-life’ example of ‘resistance’ in support of white supremacy.”
Bilkszto filed a lawsuit against the TDSB and, according to the statement of claim, the Board failed to support him when he was “feeling humiliated, attacked, unsupported, harassed and alone” after the interaction. The claim says the situation led to the destruction of Bilkszto’s reputation and caused him “mental distress.”
Bilkszto also filed a mental stress injury claim with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) in May 2021, because of what he considered to be workplace harassment that resulted in his inability to work. The WSIB ruled in his favour and described the speaker’s behaviour as “abusive, egregious and vexatious.”
The Ontario Principals’ Council said school boards should protect their staff from bullying and harassment, adding “all efforts must be made to prevent this from ever happening again.”
Some commentators, like John Ivision and Conrad Black, have used Blikszto’s suicide to amplify calls for a reduction of DEI initiatives.
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the allegations are “serious and disturbing” enough that his staff would review them and consider options to reform professional training and strengthen accountability on school boards.
“This tragic incident only underscores the need for greater accountability of school boards and the necessity to ensure professional training is free from harassment and intimidation,” Lecce said in a statement.
Grant says DEI training is being scapegoated and that she would’ve liked to have heard from a mental health professional about the dangers of mental health and harassment in the workplace and what that looks like.
While Bilkszto’s suicide was “sad” and “unfortunate,” she remains steadfast in her view that DEI education is necessary in the fight against racism.
“To see it being painted and framed that it’s DEI [to blame for Bilkszto’s death], speaks to the anti-Black racism that Black folks have to deal with everyday,” she says.
Amanuel Melles is the executive director at the Network for the Advancement of Black Communities. He’s also volunteered doing mental health and suicide prevention work for almost 25 years. Melles said his initial reaction to the news of Bilkszto’s death was “deep sadness.” However, he calls efforts to link his suicide to the DEI training “perplexing.”
Melles says DEI education is meant to help students and school staff establish stronger community connections so that everyone is better prepared to have difficult conversations and combat racism. He says by imparting knowledge to the “influencers” in students’ lives, like teachers and guidance counsellors, all parties are better prepared to have difficult conversations and combat racism.
“If we can shift the mindset of these influencers … their power becomes a positive force for the learning experience and upbringing of our children,” Melles said.
Fragility and mental health
Melles also cautions that while it’s important to be respectful and mindful of people’s mental health, mental health shouldn’t be confused with “white fragility.”
Professor and diversity consultant, Robin DiAngelo, defines white fragility as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. This includes outward displays of emotion like anger, fear, and guilt, as well as behaviours such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”
Grant says holding people accountable and challenging their beliefs is a part of combating white supremacy and white fragility, and is in line with the overall objective of DEI education.
Acknowledging that conversations about racism are uncomfortable and challenging, Melles says mutual empathy and respect are necessary in every conversation.
“It’s another way of saying, ‘I care about you as a human being, and I’m going to separate you as a person from the discussion,'” Melles explained. “We need to prepare people that are engaged in these conversations to summon their courage to be able to look at discomforting data and be ready to learn and unlearn.”
As the new school year progresses, Ontario students in Grades 7 and 8 will be working through new mental health modules that advocates say will be vitally important for Black students.
The modules will teach students practical strategies for managing and reducing stress like mindfulness and learning how to recognize mental health issues. The modules will also provide students with resources on how to access additional mental health support.
Grant says DEI trainings and initiatives like these help create safe environments conducive to learning, especially for Black children.
“The purpose and value of this type of training and education are for the survival of our children. Not only to survive but to thrive in the education system.”
But while DEI training is essential in helping to move the dial in the fight against anti-Black racism, Grant and Melles both say it is insufficient on its own.
“Training is a critical instrument of imparting knowledge and paving the way for change, but I don’t want us to overblow its significance,” says Melles. “Training itself is not sufficient. It’s a great tool if it’s complemented by other interventions.”
Grant agrees, adding that combating anti-Black racism “is not a one-and-done.”
“Being an anti-racist is continuous,” she says. “You have to do it every day, because we have to fight for our survival every single day.”
Marcus is a poet, editor and freelance journalist based in Toronto. He currently works with New Canadian Media as an Editor and as a Freelance Writer for ByBlacks.com, The Edge: A Leader's Magazine and The Soapbox Press.