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‘More than my job’: Doctoral student Tanitiã Munroe’s commitment to Black youth and their families

February 10, 2021

By Perry King


In the education system, Black students must matter, says doctoral student Tanitiã Munroe. For the TDSB child youth worker, Black identities, Black culture, and Black history should be a year-round celebration and conversation (photo by Christine Cousins).

“Shout out to all the educators who are committed to a syllabus that regularly celebrate the work, contribution and history of Black people all year round. When we teach Black history in isolation, it contributes to our nation’s amnesia about Black people/communities.”

When Tanitiã Munroe tweeted the above recently, it wasn’t a swipe at any one colleague at the Toronto District School Board, where she works as a child and youth worker (CYW).

But, the doctoral student, who is at OISE’s department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, is “disgusted” at the way School Boards attend to the needs and experiences of Black students – especially during Black History Month.

“Echoing what I have said on Twitter, it’s always something that I think is very performative,” said Munroe, who is pursuing her PhD in adult education and community development with a collaborative in educational policy. “I'm grossed out by just how you have teachers that run around and say, ‘Oh, we want to talk about all the contributions Black people made during these 28 days.’

“And, and I'm like, ‘So what about January, March, April, May – what about the other months?’ Is this the only time you think we matter or our histories matter?”

It’s an important question. In the education system, Black students must matter. And when it comes to discussing Black identities, Black culture, and Black history, those practices should be a year-round celebration and conversation, she says. For example, being in classroom spaces where teachers discussing Canadian history skip over Black peoples’ contribution – or the extent of the anti-Black racism, marginalization, and oppression they endured while helping to shape its landscape.

“It is so whitewashed. Everything is carefully and neatly wrapped up in a false narrative of Canadian exceptionalism,” she said.

“We're being talked about now – everyone is pushing anti-racism efforts and discussing their mediocre approach to address anti-Black racism, and everything in between. But what is really happening behind the scenes? What is really going on when antiracist initiatives and equity policies don’t line up with educators’ practice? Where is the accountability?”

Fighting to center Black students’ and Black families’ experience 

As a CYW working with TDSB Caring and Safe Schools (supporting expelled, suspended and alternatively placed students and, by extension, their families), Munroe represents one of the few Black staff members. There are 19 Safe Schools sites, and more than 80 staff members between the elementary and high school programs.

Of those few, she considers herself as one of the most vocal in defending Black children and families. Munroe recalled being vocal in the past and enduring everything from unsupportive comments made by other staff to being labelled as “aggressive” and “intimidating” by white colleagues. This came about after questioning the language used by a white social worker in their presentation on Black students.

“They said I traumatized them and didn’t feel safe to do anymore PD with our group. ‘You know that angry Black woman trope that follows us around in social situations and impedes on our perception in the professional realm?’

“I have that bullseye on my back.”

The perception as being “too radical” and trying to apply a critical social justice approach back then, often left Munroe feeling isolated at times with only the support of a few colleagues.

Those experiences weigh on her, but she remains devoted to lifting barriers to education for those who have difficulty navigating these bureaucracies. “For me, my eyes remain open on what hides in the shadows of anti-racism practice,” she says. “Until anti-racism is not seen merely as just new information but a continual practice of unlearning for educators, it's just going to join a long list of actions that delay the examination of institutions themselves that uphold white supremacy and anti-Blackness.”

“I’m still weary of where these institutional performances direct our attention, including Black History Month.”

Her work with families has not gone unnoticed. For her peers, Munroe holds their respect and admiration.

“Tanitiã holds a ‘big picture’ understanding of the many systems that have failed Black, Indigenous and racialized people including education and other systems they navigate, without ever losing the complex and nuanced details of our humanity,” said Arij Elmi, a fellow doctoral candidate in the department of social justice education.

Elmi best describes Munroe as “scholar-activist,” committed to a vision of decolonized education that centers the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and racialized students. “Tanitiã’s intellect is exceptional and is equally matched by the compassion she has for the students and families that she works with,” she says.

Stephanie Fearon, another colleague, says that whether Munroe is advocating for the rights of Black youth within the school system, community, or at home, she does so with conviction and fierce love. “Such resistance work against anti-Blackness requires a level of commitment that goes beyond the standard workday,” she says. “Tanitiã’s dedication to her own children and other Black youth within our community is non-stop and authentic.”

It’s true. Those experiences – as a mother, and as a Black queer woman – instill a strong sense of compassion for these families. It sees her work after hours to keep families informed about next steps for suspended kids, for example. “It’s more than my job, and I think that's the thing that I often need to balance because I take on so much,” she says.

“And when we can build on our capital or worth and have that knowledge, they can’t mess around with us. Education is power, knowledge is power.”

Working on her doctorate, talking from experience

At OISE, Munroe’s doctoral focus is personal. She looks at Black families’ experiences in K to 12 education and how educational policies and school disciplinary practice have dire consequences for Black students, their families and communities. It’s a focus that places Munroe in close, constant proximity to Black families and students — and garnered her an Ontario Graduate Scholarship Award.

“Tanitiã is smart, engaging, tenacious, a fierce advocate, creative, loyal, funny, sometimes stern, and caring,” said Professor Lance McCready, Munroe’s doctoral supervisor.

Munroe’s research also seeks to challenge educators to rethink school systems in ways that centre Black 2SLGBTQIA+ youth within policies and pedagogies. 

“Tanitiã’s research compels all educators to uphold African, African Caribbean, and Black youth as collaborators in the reimagining of learning spaces where Black youth are able to realise their highest potential,” Fearon added. 

As a fellow Black mother, recent OISE PhD graduate and program coordinator at the TDSB, Fearon appreciates Tanitiã’s research, “as it stresses the urgency for policymakers, educators, Black families, and community members to come together with and take the lead from Black youth in the building of liberated Black futures,” she says.

“She inspires me to act boldly and creatively in service of Black children and youth.”

With all that said, her journey continues. Professor McCready has some crucial advice for Munroe as she continues to navigate the challenges of supporting expelled and suspended Black students.

“Develop a good research and evaluation toolbox,” he says, “keep your eyes on the prize of your professional goals, strive to write and revise policy to reflect Black students’ experiences and overall well-being in mind.”

It is an exciting time for Munroe, where she will continue to engage Black youth and their families in ways that uphold their agency, voices, and identities in her research.

“It is what it is man, I know my mouth and I know it has gotten me into trouble for speaking up and pushing buttons,” Munroe says. “But, you know, your parents will tell you – they're Caribbean people – we don’t back down from a fight.”

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