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November 2017: A test for white people

(The following appeared in the Chronicle Herald: Voice of the People, Nov. 11/17.)

At a Lessons in Anti-Racism Organizing panel in Halifax recently, Lynn Jones was a model of restraint when asked whether society had made progress in the campaign to eradicate racism.

“Are things better now than they once were?” the moderator asked. Ms. Jones turned the question back on us, a largely white audience, for answering. It was meant to make us think. And it did. There’s a simple test in the form of a question that each of us can ask ourselves: Would I want to be black?

If we’ve made progress toward the eradication of racism, the answer should be simple. Yes, we’re saying, in principle, I would want to be black. We’d be saying in effect that we feel there is no difference between the experience of being black and the experience of being white. And that would be admirable.

Me? I’d need to think twice. I may not be rich, I may not be royalty, but I know a good thing when I’ve got it. I like being able to come and go without explaining myself. I like doing and saying as I want. Generally speaking, no one questions me. I’m not afraid for my safety.

No one’s deciding based on the colour of my skin what my limitations are, what I can and can’t do. I’m my own boss. I’d have to be willing to give up advantages conferred on me by the brute-force efforts of my forebears and enforced by the institutions and systems set up to serve my type. I’d have to not only be fully awakened to the fact that such advantage exists, ill-gotten and unearned, but awake to the fact that I was party to its continued existence and willing to either share it or dismantle it.

There’s no acceptable explanation for why being white is easier. There’s nothing about being white that warrants catching a break or earning bonus rewards and yet it does, endlessly, in many different ways. And those of us who are white keep cashing in and propping up our privilege, reinforcing the advantage and the right to advantage (or if not reinforcing, then denying the opposite — the existence of racism). We all need to answer the question, “Would I want to be black?” and keep answering it until we get to “Yes.” We’ll know our work is done when we’re no longer asking those we’ve oppressed if we’re there yet.

Cindy Littlefair, Halifax

 

July 2017: A new more truthful day

Come September 2017, the school day of every public school student in HRM will begin with the singing of O Canada and the reading of an acknowledgment of Nova Scotia’s treaty with Indigenous peoples: We acknowledge that we are in Mi’kma’ki, which is the traditional ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq people.

This is turning me into an activist, says the gentleman who calls me to register his disapproval. He’s a senior, a history buff, who’s raised his own children and now has school-aged grandchildren. I don’t want them used in this way, he says. He’s unhappy. You’re aware this is part of a much larger undertaking, I say, the Truth and Reconciliation process begun at the federal level and producing calls to action across all sectors and at all levels of Canadian society. Education has a role to play. This acknowledgment is just the beginning, it will be supported by lessons in every grade. He’s not comforted by this news, not impressed. It’s turning me into an activist, he says again.
It’s only later that both the paradox and the contradiction in what he says reveal themselves. He doesn’t want children used in this way. Does that mean he’s content with having them used in the teaching of half-truths? Settler truths? Anyone alive and raised in the Canadian public school system has been on the receiving end of half-truths their entire life. To apply his logic, we should all feel badly used. This acknowledgment merely begins to set the record straight.
The contradiction inherent in not wanting children “used in this way” is that the acknowledgment addresses, at least in part, the actual ill use of children in another school system. As TRC Justice Murray Sinclair said, referencing the residential school system, Education got us into this mess and education will get us out of it. In that sense and borrowing again from the caller’s words, “using” children is surely more appropriately done in the upholding of truth than in the perpetuating of lies and oppression.

April 2017: Snow dazed and confused

(The following article originally appeared in The Coast, April 6, 2017.)


Cindy Littlefair is a member of the Halifax Regional School Board, and she wants to know what you think should be included in the principles for the School and Bus Cancellation policy. Let her know at clittlefair@hrsb.ca.

 
Snow dazed and confused
Should safety trump resilience when it comes to canceling school?
By Cindy Littlefair

I start muttering and twitching even before I’m out of bed. The cell phone on the other side of the room has “dinged” and because it’s 6 am on a winter weekday, I know that a text has just arrived, saying “All schools in HRSB will be closed today.”

They’re words that strike fear and loathing and more than a little disbelief in an increasing number of parents in HRM. Panic: What are we going to do with the kids today? Anger: Why can’t we decide for ourselves whether to go to school? Incredulity: Is it really possible to miss this much school and still get a year’s worth of education? And a bonus question: What’s the take-away for kids when school is halted by weather?

That last point has turned cancellation-forecasting into a game with kids. Snow? Freezing rain? “There won’t be any school tomorrow, bet you $5.” Many believe kids have become conditioned, set-up for expecting a day off.

The public, through the HRSB governing board, has one tool in its kit for providing direction to the superintendent on the topic of weather-related cancellations. It’s called the School and Bus Cancellation Policy. The statement of principles, the bit written by the governing board, says this: “The superintendent or designate will cancel school when severe weather or poor road conditions are considered to be a threat to the safety or health of students and staff.”

The policy was last revised in 2011. An unprecedented number of the public took part via their schools. As a result the policy is highly representative of the opinions of the day. It expresses what we wanted. And what did we want? Safety. We wanted school cancelled when there was a threat to safety. Safety, it would appear, is what we valued most.

Few can argue with safety as a value. It’s something we want the superintendent to keep in mind. But recent responses to certain cancellations suggest there are other things we now want as well. Some people want to see resilience reflected. Or self-reliance. Or a can-do attitude. If so, how do we express them? At 5am on a winter morning, it’s the expression of our values and beliefs as expressed in principles that a superintendent reaches for in the form of their procedures.

We all think we could do it better. And we all seem to realize that there is no way to win universal agreement for the decision. Cancel the buses and open the schools? Critics say if it’s not safe to drive, it’s not safe to walk. Let school-based staff, teachers and others, decide whether they can make it to school? The current principles and collective agreements don’t allow that, safety again. Decide by family of schools? Again, the policy says “safety first” and the decision is always based on the best info at 5am. Delayed starts offer some hope and they’re being explored. In the meantime the current superintendent’s doing what he can with what they’ve got.

My 6am twitching and muttering erupts into a burst of righteous indignation, hyperbole and melodrama. “I know what the board should do,” I say to my empty bedroom, “it should follow the lead of industry and post its own version of the ‘Days lost to accidents’ tracker displayed at factory gates.” And what would it say at this point in the school year? “Four hundred thousand instruction days lost due to cancellation”—eight days times 50,000 students. Maybe we’re OK with that and maybe we’re not. Either way, it’s time to give it a think. Is safety the thing we value most? Or is there room in there for education?

March 2017: Weather-related school cancellations

Weather-related school cancellation decisions come from the Superintendent’s office. If wishing to register your opinion on a decision you can speak with that office. If wishing to speak about the policy itself (see link below), please call or drop me a line.

For comments about a decision: Superintendent’s office, 464-2000.
For comments about the policy: Cindy at 717-0040 or clittlefair@hrsb.ca.

I have requested that the chair of the Policy Review and Development Committee add B.012, School and Bus Cancellation Policy to an upcoming agenda as an item for discussion. The policy was last reviewed and revised in 2011, informed in part by a 2009 report entitled School Storm Days in Nova Scotia commissioned by the Department of Education. HRSB produced a response to the report. As is frequently the case with policies it was sent to every school in HRM for consideration and feedback was received from almost every school. That feedback is reflected in the policy.

Please feel free to contact me with any thoughts or comments on the School and Bus Cancellation Policy.

November 2016: Vice-Chair Election Comments

The following comments were offered during the nomination process for election of Vice Chair, 2016/17 school year:

We are a generous bunch. I was struck by that when writing these notes. The very existence of this body depends entirely on people offering themselves AND risking rejection. We offered ourselves to our districts for the privilege of sitting at this table and representing them and now we offer ourselves again, some of us, to one another, our colleagues, for the privilege of leading. It’s no small thing, offering. I can’t speak for the others but personally I’m way outside my comfort zone saying, Pick me, Pick me. So I want to start with acknowledging that and thanking us for offering.

I had the good fortune of enjoying the leadership provided by others for four years. I didn’t have to think about it. I came each week and I sat back and I admired it or criticized it but no matter what I didn’t have to DO it. My own neck wasn’t on the line. I could stick to my knitting, be a board member, and leave the heavier lifting to others.

Now I’m ready for heavier lifting. I’m a cautious person by nature and after four years of seeing how it works I think I finally have something to offer. Seeing so many new faces around the table I’ve been thinking about my beginnings here and my desire for guidance and leadership, and what I’ve learned from observing, and how, in addition to wanting to do it, I actually feel some obligation. I’ve enjoyed and learned from the leadership of others and now it’s time to step up and at least offer that to you.

The vice-chair role, as Dave reminds us, now comes with Committee of the Whole chairing duties. I have that experience from being chair of the policy committee for a year and the ad hoc governance committee last year. And I enjoyed it. And I like to think I was effective. I liked being responsible for making sure that all voices got heard. That we stuck to the point. And that we didn’t take forever doing it. AND that we got to where we were going, together, sharing a feeling of accomplishment.

I like the idea of being part of the executive committee and setting the board’s agenda. The governance work opened my eyes to the many ways in which we can be more effective. One of the ways is the agenda itself. A simple tool, the agenda has immense impact on what we do. It affects everything from the tactical to the strategic. I’d like to be part of bringing a critical eye to the way we use it. And I’d love to be in on the start-up phase of this committee, that approach itself forming a big leap forward for efficiency and effectiveness.

What I offer beyond member and chairing experience and an interest in governance is a particular interest in equity. It isn’t EXplicitly a part of the role but IMplicitly it is. Very much. The governing board’s leadership has to have an understanding of the existence and effect of the historic and systemic barriers and obstacles that stand in the way of achieving equity. And it has to demonstrate an insistence on educating and transforming ourselves in order to educate and be an example to those we serve. Equity is the lens through which virtually everything we do must be viewed. Staff is already doing tremendous work on this front. The governing board’s work needs to be just as rigorous.

And, finally, I’d like to offer – a special BONUS offer – to get us up and running with a communications plan. One that would have us, the governing board, speaking directly to our 136 SACs and related African and Aboriginal Nova Scotian elected bodies on a regular basis. It could be as simple as a quarterly enewsletter but it would be ours and it would put us in touch and it could lead to other things.

I’ve had four years of watching and learning and reflecting and now I offer that to you. I’m stepping up and you’re welcome, with your vote, to tell me to step-off or step back. I’m okay with that. Really. But for the moment, for now at least, I feel the need and desire to offer.

September 2016: North End School Review debate comments

In the near future, the governing board will receive a recommendation to review the balance of peninsula schools. I mention this because it’s the district I represent. Part of my district. And knowing what’s coming I’ve watched this review and the last review, Eastern Passage, with particular interest. I’ve watched the demands it places on all involved. I’ve watched the committee and the SAC chairs especially and the work it represents for them, what it has demanded of you, and what it will in all likelihood demand of SAC chairs to come. It is a gargantuan ask, a gargantuan undertaking, one marked of necessity by personal sacrifice, willingness to learn and understand and defend, and selflessness. As volunteer gigs go it’s remarkably demanding. And yet while it’s likely you didn’t sign on for SAC knowing that this work would be expected of you, same for the chairs in my district, it is arguably amongst the most important work you will do as an SAC chair for what it means to the future of the physical delivery of education in HRM.

I’m a product of the old model – an old-tymie SAC chair. Most of us here remember that process. Critics of the new model may have forgotten. Board staff decided which schools should be reviewed, individual schools, and then the governing board yayed or nayed it, and, if yayed, the battle would begin. And it was miserable. It was trench warfare. Us against them. Everyone dug in. Intractable. Isolated. Individual schools set in opposition to the system, the board. Duking it out. Surrender was never an option, people feeling as strongly as they DO about their schools. And it was hard, hard work but not particularly satisfying work because the process, even properly executed, was the wrong process. And everyone knew it. And the results, the responses, were uneven from one school to the next, too often falling victim to emotional appeals targeted primarily at heart instead of head. Desparate. And when the individual schools finally came to plead their case it was as if entering the Coliseum, various forms of officialdom looking on, SAC chairs taking the floor and, as was the case the last time I appeared in front of the governing board as SAC chair, watching my school succeed and witnessing Saint Pats Alexandra’s demise firsthand. It was every man, every school, for itself – the outcomes possibly arbitrary.

This debate happens for me at a very high level. Did the committee do what it was asked to do? Was process followed? Has staff checked it for deficiencies? It happens at a very high level in part, beyond being where governance places it, because we empowered and entrusted a community in the form of the SOC to go forth and make sense of a complex situation on our behalf. We gave them that authority. School review, fraught at the best of times, was especially fraught in this instance because taking place in a particularly beleaguered community. We asked a committee to understand, and figure out, and make sense for us. And make amends. And they did, as evidenced in the report and in the presentation of their report, in a way that none of us at this table could ever have hoped or expected of ourselves. The committee got out and into the community to a depth and breadth and with a thoroughness that meant representation was true and full and where deemed to need to be truer and fuller, made so, tireless in their pursuit of a durable set of recommendations. We gave them a job to do. They did it. And to my way of thinking it is incumbent on us to support it. All of it.

It’s not that I’m uninterested in the details. I’ve read every message I’ve received. If they’d pointed to a major structural weakness and fail I’d have been all over it. If the stars had aligned to produce not only a fatally flawed report but then, perfect storm of perfect storms, a fatally flawed staff report then I and everyone at this table would have, in our individual and collective wisdom, sensed, uprooted, and exposed it. That’s what we do. But that has not been demonstrated. At most we are seeing discrete things that require additional attention and will get additional attention going forward but nothing that suggests that these recommendations or the process needs redoing.

People charge that the Committee is not expert but I say it’s as expert as we’re going to get short of turning it over to paid professionals and we know how trusting and deferential the public is toward decisions made by paid professionals. Not. That’s old school. We’ve done that. Our expectations have changed, grown, they’ve possibly gotten the better of us for being impossibly high – unwieldy, unmanageable. But that’s where we are now and that’s the bar we have to meet and that means doing the work ourselves, equipped with the best possible information and support, investing it with our time and energy, and that’s what this Committee has done.

It is with sadness that I hear what seem to be people who enjoy privilege twisting the committee’s efforts in reaching out to truly marginalized communities in order to apply that description to themselves. The committee needed not only to represent all voices but work to bring to the table those voices that have traditionally been overlooked, overpowered, or ignored. To those critics who would co-opt this argument I plead for compassion and reflection. The comparison is unjust, baseless, and damaging. A rejection of these recommendations and motions would almost certainly crush and further alienate key stakeholder groups in the community. We can’t keep telling people we have their backs, their best interests, at heart, that equity and inclusion are uppermost in our minds, if only to ignore those things in the interest of expedience. Nor can we think that committees of people will come together to do our bidding, the work of the SOC, if we arbitrarily dismiss their efforts. We can not empower them only to betray them in the final analysis. To do so is at our peril and the peril of future public engagement.

You have done a remarkable job. A difficult job. It has been messy. You have stuck with it. Seen it through. And the proof is in the result. It is so different from and superior to the old system I just described that the result is immediately light years ahead of any its predecessor ever produced. Instead of one school against the system it is a collection of schools, honouring their interdependence, and working with one another to tell the board what is needed. It is community, the on-the-ground, day-to-day experts scrutinizing their collective needs and deciding what’s in their best interest given the assigned mandate. It is a decision participated in by hundreds of participants, stickhandled by a diverse, inclusive, committed group. Representative. Is it imperfect? The committee itself tells us so. Detractors tell us so. And those things will be addressed. But is it the best we’ve ever known? Unequivocally. This is the level from which I contemplate the recommendations and the motions. I have profound respect and appreciation for the work of community and faith in the continuing evolution of what is a fundamentally more enlightened approach to managing precious and finite resources.

June 2016: Everything you need to know to be a school board member

What do you think? Mayor? Councillor? Or maybe you secretly long to be a school board member. If so, the following is for you. Speaking personally, it’s been a fantastic experience being a school board member. I’ve loved it. I’ve hated it. And most days I fall somewhere in between. It’s an honour and a privilege and I recommend it to anyone who believes and wants to invest personally in public education. Elections are in October, so there’s still plenty of time to prepare with these tips.

1. Attend meetings: Being there in person provides the full picture. And do some homework ahead of time: go online, read agendas and attachments, jot down thoughts, questions and your position on decision items.

2. Read the Education Act: It’s rambling, hard to follow, in need of overhaul and your new bible. Read the board’s guiding documents: strategic plan, business plan, budget, long range outlook, minutes, reports and policies. They’re online too. The strategic plan expires in 2017. How will you improve it? (Hint: Whatever you do, connect it to student learning. That’s as it is with all things.)

3. Plug into a School Advisory Council: There’s one at every school, advising the principal. Whether parent or community member you can attend and observe. Find out what’s on peoples’ minds. SACs are one-third of the elected voice of education in this province along with the minister of Education and school board members.

4. Ask yourself why you want the job: I wanted to fix the school board. I disagreed with something staff had done, turned that into generalized condemnation and arrived ready to do battle. The problem? Being a board member isn’t about that. Board staff are good at what they do: the day-to-day running of the system. The governing board needs to be just as good at what it does: providing direction. That involves more than nursing pet peeves and grandstanding. It means understanding the whole system in all its complexity and acting with the best interests of 136 schools, almost 50,000 students and a few hundred thousand citizens in mind. That’s how you serve public education: With students and equity front and centre.

5. On the edge of a knife: While essential that you understand and respect the system, you’re there to represent constituents. Be their voice. This means being conflicted. Within your district there will be disagreement—not only with you but with one another. How will you handle it? Are you an appeaser who, as Winston Churchill said, “feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last?” Or will you take it all in, all the information your vantage point affords, and form your own opinion? You have to figure out how to marry district representation with that of of every child and citizen. Being there for your schools and issues alone won’t cut it. That means hard decisions and being taken to task.

6. How much time do you have? It’s a part-time job with full-time aspirations. It’s meant to fit in around the edges of your life. The work is demanding and preparation essential. The board recently received a 115-page package with the agenda; there were five days to read and digest. Generally speaking, the work takes five to 15 hours a week. And the learning curve is steep. My first year it felt like drinking from a fire hydrant. Public office is a right that comes with a lot of responsibility.

Cindy Littlefair

Contributed to The Coast, Mar. 18, 2016.