Catholic school district enlists St. Mary’s University expert to implement racial justice framework

The Calgary Catholic School District is working with an expert from St. Mary’s University to address systemic racism within its jurisdiction.

Together, they’re implementing an equity framework meant to empower educators and administration to not only have meaningful conversations about race, but address issues of inequality appropriately. 

“There’s a book that we’re using written by Glenn Singleton, and it’s called Courageous Conversations About Race, and that provides us a theoretical framework and helps us learn more about what we can do in this whole area,” said chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas. 

He said he knows there is systemic racism within society — and as a result, in the education system. 

“When we think of our own school jurisdiction, it made me think about how at times I had heard inappropriate jokes or comments that are being shared among staff members and that is totally inappropriate,” he said.

Szumlas says the district is in the process of implementing its racial justice framework, starting by providing mandatory professional development courses around anti-racism, on an ongoing basis, for principals and teachers.

“I think the first step is recognizing that there is an issue,” he said. “We have provided professional sessions for all of our principals in our school district, as well as back in November we had a professional development day for all of our staff at Calgary Catholic.”

Lance Dixon is the director of campus ministry at St. Mary’s University and is helping the Calgary Catholic School District implement a racial justice framework. (Submitted by Lance Dixon)

Lance Dixon, who is biracial, is the director of campus ministry at St. Mary’s University in southeast Calgary.

He has an educational background in social justice, and he’s leading Calgary Catholic through this process.

“We begin by looking at the protocols of constructive conversation around race. In other words, we need to make sure our schools are a safe place for conversations to happen,” he said. 

Dixon said using Singleton’s book, which details a number of conditions, will help the district open a dialogue about systemic racism and develop protocols in a way that affirms and maintains the dignity of students and staff affected by racism.

“I think that’s one of the critical steps that is missed, particularly among educators whose whole career is based on the competency of knowledge … and sometimes we get into a place of of hiding our own inability,” he said. 

“But when we get into these racial conversations, we need to. That’s part of our story that we don’t know. And that moves to one of the conditions of learning what white consciousness is all about, understanding the role and presence of whiteness and its impact on the conversation and the problem that it creates.”

Dixon said while it’s hugely important to have these conversations, as that’s the beginning of making change, people need to understand that the conversations won’t immediately resolve the issues either. 

“These issues aren’t going to be solved in one conversation. It’s going to take many conversations,” he said.

“That means that there’s going to be many times where people are going to have to be called out and people are going to have to own the fact that they just said and did something that was insensitive to another person’s story, to their reality.”

A local anti-racism activist who previously called the Calgary Catholic schools “trauma centres” for racialized students, said she’s happy with the steps the district is taking to address its systemic racism. 

Marion Ashton with the Sankofa Art and Music Foundation helped the students come up with their demands. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

Marion Ashton is the director of Sankofa Arts and Music Foundation, and helped students at Bishop McNally School organize a rally in October after two instances of district teachers using the N-word were shared online. 

She said that since then, the district has taken the issue very seriously.

“They have been doing an awesome job. They’ve demonstrated their ability to listen. Bryan his team really took the time out and continue to take the time out to listen to parents, community members and students alike,” she said. “They have been proactive in looking at the steps that they can take.”

Szumlas said the district is also committed to continuing the work of its racial justice committee, which was formed after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. He said the district now has a representative from each of its 180 schools on the committee, and they continue to meet regularly. 

“Our team leads have been out to the schools where students have been crying out to be heard and had conversations with them. That’s only one step in the bigger picture,” he said.

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