Imagine going to school at 13, and seeing a racial slur targeting your ethnic group written on a whiteboard.
This is what happened to Daniella Jovanovic at Burnett secondary and the memory of it still upsets her almost a decade later.
At the time, she didn’t tell anyone in authority at school, but it drove home the importance of educating students early about racism and respecting other people no matter what their background is.
As a Black student attending school from kindergarten to Grade 12 in Richmond, Jovanovic never learned about the history of Black people in Canada, and this sparked her to write to the Richmond Board of Education asking for change.
On Wednesday, the Richmond board of education voted unanimously to advocate to the Ministry of Education for mandatory Black history instruction in schools, but they went one step further and decided to start a diversity and anti-racism working group across the district to address the issue within schools.
The group would review school district policies and find gaps in the system, for example, in hiring practices and professional development.
This was a motion from Trustee Sandra Nixon, but she pointed out conversations had already been taking place among school district senior staff, trustees and the community about the need to review issues around racism in schools.
The racial-slur incident was hurtful for Jovanovic, and she was curious where a student might have even learned the word. However, she said she believes education can root out racism early and combat xenophobic attitudes that some students might be picking up at home.
“That’s another reason why it’s so important to talk about these issues in school, because I find in adulthood… it’s so difficult to change those views,” she said. “I think that’s why we have to start early.”
In a letter addressed to the board of education, Jovanovic said she had only ever learned about white history in school.
“Black people had essentially been written out of the books which just perpetuates the myth that there is no anti-Black racism in Canada,” she said in her letter.
Her motivation is two-fold, she explained to the Richmond News: to educate others but also to make Black people understand they have always been valuable and contributing members of Canadian society.
She pointed out in Ontario Canadian Black history is part of the curriculum.
When students aren’t educated about respect for Black Canadians and their valuable contributions, they aren’t taught to respect Black people here and around the world, her letter continues.
“The end result is insensitivity, distrust and disdain for treating other people, particularly Black and other students of colour, as they should be treated,” she added.
There have been demonstrations and marches in hundreds of cities across the U.S., in Canada and globally over the past two weeks to protest racism after George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, was pinned under the knee of a police officer for nine minutes and died.
This seems to have been the catalyst for change locally, said Richmond parent Karina Reid, who has written previously to the Richmond school board asking for Black history to be included in the curriculum.
She said her children haven’t learned about Black history in school and she thinks it’s a “missed opportunity.”
“We should be talking about racism, we should be talking about privilege,” she said.
When she approached the school board as well as the union, the response was that it is up to teachers to teach Black history if they wanted to. However, she said she is “hopeful” with this latest move from the board of education.
“(The death of George Floyd) has really put things on fire and it’s been a huge shift in consciousness,” Reid said.
Reid started a petition pushing the Ministry of Education for curriculum change and it has so far garnered almost 3,500 signatures.