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Students, educators mourn passing of an icon in city’s Black community

Toronto students and teachers are mourning the loss of a beloved educator and leader within the city’s Black community.

Jay Williams died last week at the age of 40.

He was most recently working as a leader with the Toronto District School Board’s Centre for Excellence for Black Student Achievement, which is dedicated to improving the experiences and outcomes for Black students.

But he’ll also be remembered as a beloved educator at a variety of middle schools in his native Scarborough, where he became well known as an inspiration for Black students.

“They loved him,” Matthew Morris, a close friend and colleague, told CBC Toronto’s Here and Now Monday.

“Students wouldn’t consider him a teacher — they looked at him more as an uncle, and it’s because of the way he approached teaching and learning. He approached it from a perspective of love and care.”

More than just a teacher

An educator since 2010, Williams wore other hats as well: He was a public speaker, and a consultant, working with boards across North America to help develop strategies to dismantle anti-Black racism within school systems.

In particular, he focused on Black masculinity, hip hop’s role in pedagogy, and other ways to make the classroom experience more culturally relevant to Black students.

“He went outside the daily 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. task of teaching the curriculum,” Morris recalled. “He started clubs for young men, he was integral in coaching sports teams. For him, it was beyond just the work.”

Within the last couple of years, he’d transitioned out of the classroom and into policy development at the TDSB, Morris said, helping identify and develop solutions for the barriers that Black students face in Toronto schools.

Students wouldn’t consider him a teacher — they looked at him more as an uncle.– Matthew Morris, Friend and colleague of Jay Williams

“Inside and out, he was committed to making sure the next generation of young black males and young black students didn’t have to face some of the challenges that the generation he was in and the generations of the past didn’t have to endure,” Morris said. “He was committed to the work of equity on a daily basis.”

The TDSB was also remembering Williams on Monday.

“Jay’s interactions meant a great deal to the students and staff he worked with as a colleague and a role model,” the board wrote in an email.

“He was both approachable and focused in the way in which he promoted adult and student learning as part of the team at the Centre of Excellence for Black Student Achievement.

“His smile, warmth, and wisdom will stay with us forever.”

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