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For Black mothers: OISE graduate Janelle Brady thinks locally to make broader impacts

November 18, 2021

Perry King

Photo courtesy Clifton Li, courtesy of Faculty of Community Services, Ryerson University.


Janelle Brady’s academic journey began, and continues, right at home.

Brady, who defended her dissertation this past fall, has placed the experiences of marginalized communities, including and especially those of Black mothers, at the forefront of her teaching and advocacy – to bring intersectional insights to education and create better outcomes for learners and supporters, alike.

Brady has recently begun her role as assistant professor in the School of Early Childhood Studies at Ryerson University.

Her dissertation, “Black Mothering: A Study of Anti-Black Racism and a Theory & Practice for Educational Futurity,” focuses in on what she calls a “Black mothering approach,” and interviewed over 30 Black mothers in the Jane-Finch community – a community “where I had the most roots, the closest friends and lived in the most,” she says.

Her doctoral research was directly inspired by work she was doing in her Jane and Finch community, as a community organizer and researcher. Working within an after-school program she co-founded called Community Forward, she found students of colour were being streamed to applied and basic courses – that is, away from a University education – and being discouraged from enrolling in places like U of T.

“It was through that program that I realized there are a lot of systemic education barriers faced by Black and racialized students who are going through the education system – and the barriers that they're facing were similar to the barriers that I faced as well, and other friends anecdotally had faced too,” she said.

Her journey had a mission – that much was clear to Brady.

Steeped in community, from the page to practice

After some encouragement from many of her York University colleagues, including her mentor Professor Joseph Mensah, Brady focused in on the community she grew up as she worked towards her Masters degree in sociology – which she completed in 2015.

Even before she arrived at OISE, her focus was consistent. She founded the Downsview Advocate in 2014, which now serves tens of thousands of readers in neighbourhoods in North York. She’s also been an active member of the Ontario NDP since 2013, with an eye to her local riding Humber River – Black Creek.

So, when she arrived at OISE and began her journey with classes instructed Professor George Dei and Professor Njoki Wane, Brady had a clarity of purpose and a mission to apply what she studied to her homestead.

“Their research, scholarship and mentorship allowed me to focus in on the Black student experience,” says Brady, of Wane and Dei’s teachings. Professor Wane’s course on Black feminism, for example, allowed Brady to anchor her work in a Black feminist perspective, she says.

Her work was strengthened at OISE. Around the same time that she heard Dei’s keynote speech at the Decolonizing the Spirit conference (that she attended with Professor Wane and a contingent group in Kenya), she was completing her work as a research consultant for the Peel District School Board’s (PDSB) We Rise Together report in 2016 – where she interviewed over 100 Black high school boys. The interviewees revealed that their mothers were their primary, and in some cases only, source of support.

It confirmed that Black mothers not only fight for the education and schooling of their children, but that they use a community-oriented - rather than an individualistic - approach to Black students’ academic outcomes. They do this, Brady argues, while facing multiple forms of oppression – racism and sexism but also classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia.

These findings undergirded Brady’s doctoral research and encompasses her work now as faculty.

Zuhra Abawi, who completed her doctoral studies with Brady, says Brady’s Black mothering approach “draws on antiracism, anticolonialism and decolonial feminisms to decentre Eurocentric narratives about Black mothers as advocates for their children in education systems.”

“Her research uses an intersectional approach to unpack the myriad barriers Black mothers encounter when supporting and fighting for their children's education,” said Abawi, who is now faculty at Niagara University’s College of Education. “Findings from her research point to a community-based lens, rather than the normalized Eurocentric individualistic approach which marginalizes and minimizes the role of Black mothers in their children's education.”

Ezi Odozor, who met Brady as fellow student in OISE’s department of social justice education, praises her research focus.

“Janelle focuses on research that impacts human lives; research that doesn’t just live in text, but that contributes to the day-to-day realities of the most disenfranchised,” says Odozor, who is now student engagement & success coordinator at the Factor-Inwentash School of Social Work. “Her work is infused with a deep commitment to ensuring the thriving of individuals and communities.”

“She is an exceptional person. She is an ideal leader and scholar.”

Professors Wane and Dei agree, and found Brady’s focus to stand apart in academic circles.

“Dr Janelle Baptiste-Brady’s work is of great significance to the community and relevant to educational institutions,” said Wane, who is chair of OISE’s department of social justice education. “Her PhD research was well conceptualized and researched.

Brady’s doctoral study examined the educational injustices faced by Black students and learners, said Wane. The aim of the project was to examine the socio-political locations of Black mothers and highlight how they advocate for their children. “Dr. Baptiste-Brady, was able to achieve this goal and, by reading it, one will find excellent intervention strategies for Black students,” she says.

Professor Dei, who teaches in the department of social justice education, concurs, that Brady’s strength is “her ability to combine community work with intellectual seeds.”

“I think it gives us strength because how we make ourselves relevant to our communities is, more and more, becoming an issue – and more so has always been an issue,” says Dei. “In terms of the question of what Black scholarship has to do, I think she brings a kind of standing too, which is that scholarship and Black scholars have a responsibility to build communities.”

“She is a brilliant scholar and a great role model to the youth. She has an amazing capacity that enables her to work with people across disciplines, personalities, and cultural backgrounds,” added Wane.

And she was doing all of this all while also taking on teaching work during her studies and maintaining the Downsview Advocate with her colleagues. From applying to grants to learning as she grew, Brady’s time at OISE changed her because it challenged her.

“It pushed me to create communities to figure out how is this not only my problem, but how is it a problem that other students are also facing as well,” says Brady, who felt very connected to her students.

Future movements, current efforts

The community that found has made for powerful work. She found it within The Centre for Integrative Anti-Racism Studies, where she was senior coordinator, and co-founded The Collective with Odozor and Dr. Shawnee Hardware. The Collective provide anti-racist and anti-Black racism professional development and consultation services. The team offers speaking engagements, community town halls, and workshop facilitation.

And in that work, her peers found a true friend and ally.

“Working with Janelle is a joy, whether as a business partner in The Collective or as a colleague in CIARS,” says Odozor. “She exemplifies what it means to put in practice the kind of community building we all talk about in our work.

“When students come to Janelle for support, they leave with an ally and a sense that they too can do the hard things. It is an honour to call her a friend, a colleague, and a mentor.”

Abawi recalled many great times with Brady in their overlapping time at OISE. She has learned a great deal. “Working with Janelle is always an honour and a privilege as I have had the opportunity to write scholarly papers with her and present at numerous conferences together, including the Decolonizing the Spirit Conference in Kenya,” added Abawi.

“Janelle always reminds people and leads by example that decolonizing ourselves is an ongoing process that is not linear, but requires constant reflective practice and learning and unlearning.”

But, the work isn’t done. Professor Dei has some advice for his peer – keep going. Remain grounded in the community. “She still has to link with the community and she has to, going forward, develop her own learning – informed by the community grounding, I think that’s very important.”

He also emphasized the importance of mentorship.

“We need to mentor, and mentorship is a two-way street,” he says. “The mentee and the mentor are equally mentored, so she has to actually work with that. Also, I think it goes to the scholarship and begins to ask new questions, create further understanding of anti-Black racism and anti-racism in intersections with other oppressions.”

Brady is poised to do great things. But, she is humbled that OISE gave spaces to Black scholars to create and thrive.

“[Professor Dei’s and Professor Wane’s] study groups were everything – to me and to many other students as well,” she said. “I’ve never been in an academic setting with so many Black scholars, community members, coming together and having these conversations around what we're facing.

“I think that was really helpful for me along my journey, but I know these groups have nurtured incredible folks who are doing impactful work in their respective fields and communities.”


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