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OISE alumna Keren Brathwaite at the forefront of eliminating racial discrimination

 

By Fred Michah Rynor


Keren BrathwaiteIt’s been a long journey for Keren Brathwaite – not only from her native Antigua and Barbuda but in the struggle against discrimination and racism as well.

Today, as she reflects on the annual International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Brathwaite considers the progress made since she came to Toronto in 1967 to pursue her Master of Education studies at OISE.

Brathwaite grew up in the village of Bolans where she learned the importance of community, “fully realizing what it meant when people said it takes a village to raise a child,” she recalls.

Because of this realization, Brathwaite, (who retired from U of T in 2003) immediately sought out the African-Canadian community when she arrived in Toronto. It was, she says, one of the most inspiring decisions she ever made.

“It was just my upbringing to be connected to my community, to be part of a network and as a new immigrant I needed to feel a part of a group ... though some might have felt that I was one of the privileged ones coming here to graduate school where there were not many from my background with whom to communicate. I soon realized that African-Canadians were doing so much work but weren’t being recognized for their contributions and there was a lot discrimination in society and in the educational system.”

Speaking with other African-Canadians,  Brathwaite and her new colleagues agreed that the classroom needed more critical analysis in order for change to happen and for new programs to be offered “that would make the system more equitable and less racist.”

This desire to bring change to education required many hours of volunteer work on their part – work that cumulated in offerings in black heritage classes for public shool students and a unique conference in 1980 for parents of black children which was supported by the Toronto Board of Education.

“This conference ignited an overwhelming desire to create the Organization of Parents of Black Children (OPBC)," Brathwaite recalls. "As well, educators felt that the system had to be expanded to include our shared history and achievements. The OPBC offered an annual black heritage open house program where students showcased their new-found knowledge of black subjects and where community speakers and professors from the university shared their expertise.”

These educational reformists also worked in collaboration with other minorities including the Portuguese, Italian and Chinese communities along with working class people who felt underserved by the school system. As with the black students, streaming was a problem for these communities, Brathwaite states.

She was also concerned about the high dropout rates of African-Canadians, “and I’m still disturbed by these statistics. We continue to see evidence of underachieving minorities and we have to give credit to Professors George Dei of OISE and Carl James of York University – both of whom I have worked with -- who have researched solutions to these problems."

However, Brathwaite has seen positive changes in the education system through the years and she's pleased that education boards are hiring more African-Canadian and other diverse teachers with more being trained especially at OISE.

“It’s now common to see black principals and members of school boards who reflect the ethnic and minority realities of society today," she says. “When I first came to Canada, African-Canadians were not principals or superintendents but much still needs to be done in areas such as curriculum.”

One of Brathwaite’s greatest achievements remains the Transitional Year Program (TYP) at U of T, a groundbreaking initiative that she co-founded in 1969 with Prof. Horace Campbell of Syracuse University. TYP became a full-time program in 1970, allowing university entrance to mature students who are Aboriginal, African-Canadian, lgbtq, working class, women and the disabled.

TYP has helped hundreds of students to successfully navigate the university system and Brathwaite was named Founding Mentor in 2003 where she remains an occasional lecturer as well as at OISE and U of T.

Brathwaite received the Ludwig and Estelle Jus Memorial Human Rights Award from U of T in 1999, the Distinguished Educator Award from OISE/UT in 1998 and the Teaching Award from U of T’s Student Administrative Council and Association of Part-Time Students in 2003. In 2009, U of T conferred on her an honourary Doctor of Laws.

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, held every March 21 as decreed by the United Nations, recognizes the anniversary of the Sharpsville Massacre in South Africa where, in 1960, anti-apartheid protesters were gunned down by the government.

A panel on racism entitled ‘Are You All Talk?: Moving from Dialogue to Action’ will be held at Hart House on Thursday, March 21 starting at 4 p.m. featuring Lee Maracle, George Dei and Sandra Hudson.



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