‘Creating transformative moments’: How Black women helped shape education in Ontario

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Funké Aladejebi still vividly remembers her first week of Grade 3.

Her family had moved to Scarborough shortly after arriving in Canada from Nigeria, in 1989. But until that third-grade class several years later, roll call was an experience she’d dreaded. Teachers always stumbled with the pronunciation of her name and didn’t seem to bother to listen to how she pronounced it. This time, though, her teacher, who was Trinidadian-Canadian, had no trouble and immediately set the young student at ease. “She said my name almost perfectly and in a way that — and in a tone that — my mother would have said,” says Aladejebi, now 37 years old and an assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto.

That experience, along with other interactions she had with Black women educators as she progressed through the public-school system, fanned Aladejebi’s interest in education and in the role these teachers played establishing inclusive practices in the classroom. This interest culminated in her forthcoming book, Schooling the System: A History of Black Women Teachers, which is based on interviews with 26 women who taught between 1940 and 1980 in such areas such as Chatham, Windsor, London, and Toronto.

“I knew so little about Black Canadian history in my undergraduate experiences and even in my elementary and high-school experiences, but I found myself more knowledgeable than some of my other peers and colleagues because I had early intervention from Black educators, and I recognized that this wasn't actually a common practice,” says Aladejebi, adding that she wondered why white women were accepted as the “quintessential” Canadian teachers. “I really wanted to think through what Black women — and Black educators, more broadly — did historically and in our contemporary context, about why their presence was so important for giving us a sense of how we teach.”

TVO.org speaks with Aladejebi about Ontario’s mid-20th-century Black women educators, their groundbreaking efforts to create space for Black Canadian experiences in the classroom — and the challenges they faced.

TVO.org: In your book, you talk about how these Black women educators had visibility in the classroom but were invisible in the curriculum. What does this mean?

Funké Aladejebi: Black women were considered to be the physical embodiment and representation of diversity and inclusion by their very race and gender. A lot of times, people pointed to Black women as the physical markers and representation of diverse schooling models and an inclusive schooling model. In classrooms, they were [visible to their students in another way]: they thought through how to create inclusive educational programming for a diverse range of students but also very specifically toward Black students.

But then they were also hyper-invisible in the way in which the curriculum really erased the presence and historical nature of the Black Canadian community. When the curriculum did mention persons of African descent, it often talked about broader racial stereotypes that were not actually true or not reflective of the lived experiences of Black people in Canada. And so it led to a series of complex relationships that Black women had to negotiate in classrooms in the school.