Confronting Racism, Promoting Respect

A union program tackles a difficult topic

By Tom McKenna

Illustrator: Jean-Claude LeJeune

I’m a racist. My students tell me so. They claim racism doesn’t exist in our society anymore. Therefore, anyone who brings up race when analyzing injustice is a racist. According to them, I fit the bill.

I teach high school social studies in Portland, OR. Most of my students are white; so am I. Some still use the word “colored” when referring to African Americans. When I correct them, they think I am trying to be “politically correct.” They are working-class kids whose experience of the world rarely extends beyond their immediate community. But they have strong opinions about the world.

When issues of race come up, a typical student comment goes like this: “It’s an advantage to be colored or Black or whatever you want us to call them.”

“Tell me about that, how is it an advantage?” I ask. “How do you know that?”

“I mean, just look, they get all the scholarships,” they respond. “And they get hired just because they’re Black, not because they’re qualified.”

I ask for examples. A student tells me about an uncle who couldn’t get a job as a cop because he was white. I suggest that we probe deeper, that maybe we’re not seeing the whole picture. “Do you really think it is easier to be a person of color than white in America today?” I question. “Do you really think there is no racism?”

That’s when they lower the boom and tell me I’m racist.

After class, I talk with my student intern. We both shake our heads in disbelief and realize how much work we have to do in order to broaden our students’ understanding about issues of race.

“Where do you begin with kids like these who are so far out of touch?” my intern asks. “How do you teach them about race and racism?” Her facial expression speaks volumes about the challenge of such an undertaking. We both fall into a momentary silence.

If I were a teacher in the Canadian province of British Columbia, I would at least know where to start.

A Union Dealing with Racism

The British Columbia Teacher’s Federation (BCTF) has a Program Against Racism. I’ve been a teacher for 25 years and a member of three teacher organizations in the United States. None has had anything remotely similar.

My experience tells me that unions in this country don’t have programs against racism. Unions negotiate contracts. Unions lobby for school funding. Unions back political candidates. Unions do a fair amount to support teachers but they don’t focus on social justice work or on the lives of students. Yet a Canadian union, the BCTF, has had a Program Against Racism for almost a quarter of a century. How can that be?

I admit that I knew very little about British Columbia before undertaking this investigation of the Program Against Racism. Though I live only a 75-minute plane ride away, Vancouver has always felt much more distant.

Before my visit, I knew some basics. I knew that Vancouver is quite diverse (its English-as-a-second-language population in the public schools hovers around 50%; approximately 25 different languages other than English are spoken at home), and that the city has a lower crime rate than comparable U.S. cities. I had once thought about moving there during the Vietnam War. Overall, I assumed BC was similar to the United States, just a kinder, gentler version.

My first visit to Vancouver shed light on some of the similarities. I found a provincial premier mired in scandal, a large urban school district faced with a funding crisis, a newspaper decrying an influx of immigrants “who aren’t appropriate for this country,”and an electrical engineer from India who has to drive a cab to make a living.

My initial research about the BCTF’s Program Against Racism was via the Internet. I logged onto their web page and found a wealth of information. The federation’s “Lesson Aids” catalog, for instance, features everything from a Human Rights curriculum, to a Status of Women Program, to a videotape featuring noted linguist and radical commentator Noam Chomsky.

I also found the names of contact people within the BCTF. Using e-mail, I sent them endless questions about the Program Against Racism. How did it start? How does it all work? How do you get curriculum into the classroom?

Some of my questions made no sense to my BC counterparts — either via e-mail or in person. When I visited Vancouver, I asked former BCTF president Larry Keuhn, “Why go through the federation to implement curriculum?” He responded with a prolonged “hmmm” and a puzzled expression, as if to ask back, “How else would one do it?”

Rather quickly it became clear that the union is a key site for teachers to reflect on classroom issues, as well as a vehicle to address larger social ills.

The Program Against Racism isn’t just a program. It is a network of committed and culturally diverse educators engaged in a prolonged struggle to fight racism in their schools and their communities. It focuses on changing the attitudes of both teachers and students, and emphasizes not only understanding racism but also taking action against it.

Many of the educators who helped develop PAR have a history of activism. Some found their lives changed by social movements in the US: the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. They wanted to change what was taught in the schools and how it was taught, while building coalitions with community groups to eliminate racism. As so many PAR associates told me, they were a family. During my days in Vancouver, they let me be a part of that family. And they told me a remarkable story about a unique program.

Presenting Accurate History

In 1975, Lloyd Edwards, a teacher from Surrey, BC, stood before the Annual General Meeting of the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation and offered a motion. He was concerned about issues of racism in schools. Often when he ventured into the halls between classes he saw Indo-Canadians (Canadians from India) being bullied by students of European descent. The bullied students were not finding much success in the classroom, either.

Edwards, a Canadian of African heritage, thought that teachers and, more specifically, their union should do something to address those issues. He had not organized any support for his motion beforehand. His was a solitary voice. Yet, according to many who were in attendance, he spoke with such a passion for justice that his motion was quickly seconded, a vote was taken, and, to many people’s surprise, Edward’s motion passed. As a result, the BCTF established a Task Force on Racism to explore the issue more deeply.

“One of the initiatives of the early Task Force on Racism was the production of a slide-tape presentation on the history of racism in British Columbia,” Wes Knapp, one of the original BCTF staff members assigned to the project, remembered. The slide-tape was an attempt to come to terms with British Columbia’s racist past: internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II; a provincial legislature that from 1890 to 1924 enacted at least 36 anti-Asian laws in an attempt to create a BC version of apartheid (most were overturned by the federal parliament); a generation of First Nation (indigenous) children, separated from their families and culture while kept for up to 10 years in “residential schools” beginning in the 1930s; a long history of Native peoples’ land claims lost to zealous European expansionists.

The slide-tape presentation met with stiff resistance. Two school boards banned it from their districts, arguing that “talking about racism would cause it to exist.” Ironically, the controversy raised awareness about the existence of racism and a co-existent problem of denial. It also shed a positive light on the federation’s efforts. According to Knapp, the Task Force Against Racism’s message “got out in ways that would not have normally been available.” The BCTF was able to engage everyone from local school officials to community members in discussions about racism and the roles schools might play in its elimination.

“I suppose,” Knapp reflected, “more than any other event, the furor around this production fueled the call for a province-wide program to combat racism.”

The union was the logical organization to put the call into action. The BCTF has a rich history of social activism. A University of British Columbia student wrote a doctoral thesis about the history of the BCTF’s social justice work; it was 600 pages long and did not get beyond the 1930s. More recently, the union established a Status of Women Program in 1972 to work on issues of gender discrimination. The program enjoyed strong membership and organizational support.

The Task Force called for a Program Against Racism to be established with a full-time coordinator, an oversight Committee Against Racism, an annual budget of $37,000, and a network of activists in every local throughout the province. The Task Force also understood that an activist network limited to just teachers and schools was not enough to adequately deal with the issue of racism. From the beginning, the community was seen as an integral part of the initiative.

The Task Force’s recommendation was not without opposition. Some federation members argued that unions exist for the sake of collective bargaining and professional development only. Social justice, they argued, is the duty of others. But there was also considerable support and significant historical precedent for social justice work. The union held fast and, in 1977, the Program Against Racism (PAR) was established.

The real work was yet to be done. An actual program had to be built. A network of educators organized through the BCTF with community roots had to be developed. But the field work was undertaken with full support of the union. Larry Keuhn was president of the BCTF during PAR’s early years and made sure the anti-racism work was not marginalized. He made it a priority to “always keep PAR connected to the rest of the BCTF,” he said in an interview. “We needed to make it as central to the BCTF as it was to people’s lives.”

Eventually, the original PAR budget of $37,000 grew to over $300,000.

A Grassroots Program

“It was a grassroots program that sprang from all over the province,” former PAR coordinator June Williams said as she spoke about PAR’s early years at a recent commemoration of the program. “Teachers who lived with students daily from all segments of society, who really knew the students … took up the fight.”

“You start with a small voice and build on it,” added another former PAR coordinator, Sam Fillipoff. “We built a support system and sustained it.” Current PAR coordinator Viren Joshi likened the early years of PAR organizing to Margaret Mead’s axiom, “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world.”

Staff members went out on the road, visiting local association meetings, university classrooms, and community groups. Strategies were devised to forge relationships with ethnic organizations and First Nations people (the term preferred by the indigenous people of Canada.) Innovative curriculum was created and revised. “There was lots of energy around our efforts,” Knapp recalled. “It was really quite exhilarating to be a part of these initiatives. They were certainly the most rewarding years of my work at the BCTF.”

Former PAR coordinator Williams particularly remembers the political debates with students and discussions about racism. “Students [were] meeting around the province,” she said, “feeling they had permission to talk about this thing they were experiencing.”

Curriculum development paralleled the organizing campaign. PAR created a follow-up to the Task Force’s controversial slide-tape presentation, a video production, and accompanying lesson plans entitled Life Without Fear. (The video is an excellent classroom tool, as well as a valuable historical document. It can be found in the BCTF lesson aids catalogue.)

The video captures examples of conversations about racism around the province. In the conversations, students and teachers reflect upon their experience and address a broad range of related topics, such as denial, stereotypes, xenophobia, institutional racism, and social action. The lesson plans provide frameworks for analyzing the themes developed in the video and strategies for taking action.

One of the video’s most refreshing aspects is that it emphasizes going beyond an understanding of racism to trying to change racist behavior. The video challenges students: “What can I do to eliminate racism, in my school, in my community?” Students are encouraged to become aware of cultural differences and the dynamics of racism, to speak out against racist comments and jokes, to ally with community members and families.

Life Without Fear’s emphasis on social action reflects a fundamental PAR principle. PAR outlines four elements of a racist incident: (1) perpetrator; (2) target; (3) bystanders; and (4) interveners. “PAR brought a paradigm shift,” explained Fillipoff. “As educators we said, ‘The majority of people are bystanders — let’s change as many of them as we can into interveners.'”

In order to take the vision of students as informed social activists even further, PAR created Students Taking Action Against Racism (STAAR) Camps. Teacher and PAR associate Carl Beach said the camps’ influence is based on the fact that “students bonded around their opposition to injustice.”

Chiara Anselmo, a teacher and former student of PAR coordinator Viren Joshi, said that, this year, her STAAR camp alone will sponsor as many as 300 students from all over her region for a weekend. “We offer Holocaust seminars, human rights work, [workshops on] valuing diversity, problem solving, intervention skills,” she said. “The BCTF provides the funding. For the first time this year, our local board will provide the transportation.”

After the camps, students return to their schools and communities and create their own activist network. The camps have been well-received by students. Anselmo started with one teacher at one school. Her efforts are now joined by 11 other schools.

Teacher Workshops

From the outset, the PAR network also provided teacher conferences and workshops. Educators from all over the province were bused to a lake in northern BC for the program’s first provincial training conference. “We were all strangers on that bus,” said Fillipoff. “By the time we got to the lake, we were a community. It was an 18-hour bus trip…. We were together for six days, we got to see each other’s warts and dimples, we built a trust which was reflected throughout the PAR network.”

PAR facilitates around 100 workshops a year, with all PAR expenses paid by the BCTF. Any teacher from anywhere in the province has the right to ask PAR to come in and help, and simply has to get a commitment that 75% of his/her colleagues will participate. Teacher commitment means a buy-in, and provides the basis for on-going work after the workshop ends.

Through a special fund, PAR also provides money for individual teachers to implement community-based projects. For instance, a number of communities have been concerned about the impact of racist practices on the culture of the First Nations. Having been in the public system for only about the last 40 years, First Nation students were struggling in school, succumbing to self-destructive behaviors, living without much hope. PAR grants funded programs across British Columbia that brought First Nation elders into the classroom to educate a younger generation about their lost oral tradition. With the guidance of elders, high school students learned to tell their stories. Students created books and read them to elementary students. Learning took on a new light, because it was no longer solely the enterprise of an institution that had alienated First Nation people.

New Directions

At their 1998 annual general meeting, the BCTF membership voted to take the federation’s social justice work in a new direction. It was decided that anti-racism work would be part of a larger umbrella covering a First Nations program and initiatives around homophobia, poverty, and the status of women.

Activists are unclear about the impact of the change. Fillipoff, like many, fears the possible loss of the network that was the heart and soul of PAR. He worries that PAR will “lose the passion and the principal focus,” which he considers both satisfying and necessary “when addressing an evil like racism.” He also worries that the changes “are going to return the focus [of anti-racist work] to perpetrators and victims.” Finally, he is concerned because “power has been re-centered in the Social Justice Committee within the BCTF and taken out of the local networks.”

PAR associate Sandy Dore is likewise afraid that under the new social justice umbrella, “all programs will be short-changed.” But Dore adds that despite his fears, like most activists he supports the federation and the new direction. He is a member of the newly formed Social Justice Committee.

“The federation just can’t handle a whole bunch of splinter groups,” Dore said. “Putting it all under one umbrella makes it practical for the BCTF.”

Larry Keuhn, the former BCTF president, also is optimistic. He thinks the new emphasis will keep the union’s social justice emphasis from becoming marginalized because it won’t be left up to the activists alone to get the work done. “Now, as the president of a local, you don’t have a choice to say, ÔI’m just interested in bargaining,'” Keuhn said. “You have to deal with issues of social justice.”

In the past, Keuhn argues, when activists made social justice work their passion, it let others off the hook. It was easy for local leadership to say, “We don’t have to deal with issues of race or gender — the activists are.”

“A more holistic approach is necessary to make fundamental change…. social justice is about sexism and racism, but also about many other things,” Keuhn asserts. “We’ve not dealt with First Nations issues until now. Homophobia was never on the agenda. We cannot systematically change things by just focusing on one issue.”

The consensus among PAR associates is to move on. Williams, for instance, insists: “It’s not an end, only a beginning.” Anselmo is busy organizing another network within the new framework. She calls it Educators Against Racism and already has over 200 teachers signed up.

If past practices offer a clue, former PAR associates will rally behind the new social justice umbrella and give it a chance to succeed. They will pave the way for a new generation of activists to carry on their work.

Commemorating and Moving On

PAR recently held a commemoration of its 24 years of anti-racist work. The last scheduled event in the two-hour long program consisted of sixth- and seventh-grade students from Vancouver who, as a result of a PAR grant, had studied with a West-African drummer. After their introduction, a cautious group of about 30 young people in the first stages of adolescence filed into the front of a large meeting room filled with unfamiliar adults. They carried a variety of drums, some almost as big the person carrying it. Their teacher said that the Yoruban song they were about to play was about respect — “respecting ourselves, learning to respect others.”

A tall Indo-Canadian girl in the back row began with a single, simple beat. Others joined in, two more in the back row, then four in the front. Before long, the room filled with a poly-rhythmic symphony. A boy seated in front put down his drum, leapt from his cross-legged position, and danced wildly across the room. Drummers shouted their support. He reclaimed his place and was followed by another dancer and then another. The audience of PAR associates and supporters stood and clapped in unison.

The music ended and the adults called for an encore. Drummers looked to their teacher. He nodded back. “OK, we will play one more song, but you have to dance.” A sweeping hand gesture pointed to every adult in attendance.

Again, the drumming started with a single beat. Adults gathered in front as the rhythm built. They joined hands and they danced. Finally, they celebrated what brought them all together.

The final act of the Program Against Racism ended as it should: PAR veterans dancing in unison to the sound of student rhythms. Faced with an uncertain future, they moved forward in a collective embrace.

I watched it all unfold from a seat in the back of the room. I couldn’t help but wonder what it might be like to be a member of a union that was committed to social justice; what it might feel like to be a part of the collective movement I was witnessing.

One thing was quite clear. If I remember correctly, it begins with a single voice.

Tom McKenna teaches history at a high school in Portland, OR.