We ask a lot of our members, to be knowledgeable about the issues affecting education, to be engaged in union activities, and sometimes, especially of late, we ask our members to be activists. But for some members, the very notion of activism is one fraught with emotion and even danger. This is a story of an OSSTF/FEESO member who has found her way through the emotion and fear to a place of empowerment and strength. This member’s experiences are situated in race and gender, as a woman of colour in an organization that has a mostly non-racialized workforce.
Carol Pinnock is a member in the Teachers Bargaining Unit of District 24, Waterloo. She shared her story with Solange Scott, a Professional Student Support Personnel member from District 12, Toronto. Below is Carol’s story, as told through conversation.
Solange—Many people of colour, particularly women, experience feelings of fear and isolation. Tell me about your experience being a woman of colour and your involvement with activism?
Carol—As a young woman, I was quite vocal about injustices and had no fear stating so among those in my cultural community. As an adult, I worked for Vancouver Status of Women and helped to support single mothers like myself learn about services within the city that could help them with services and advancement. Despite the negative comments I would hear about the Downtown Eastside, I loved travelling there every day and hanging out with and sharing ideas related to living quality lives with the amazing people who lived and worked in that part of Vancouver. That said, I was never on the front line of any movement. I never wanted to be overly visible.
Solange—How did your race impact or prevent your activism?
Carol—My race has played a major role in my fears and decisions about activism. Whether real or imagined, I have always felt that as a visible minority, and up until recently the only one who looks like me in most groups in which I find myself, if there was to be any violence where I was, it would be perpetrated against me for sure; I am an easy target. As a result, I stay away from large public events. I was a child living in the Caribbean during the Civil Rights movement in the United States, far away from the daily marches, meetings, and beatings, etc. Yet those images are etched in my mind and have somehow created feelings of fear and even terror as I think of the police dogs attacking crowds of people.
Solange—Do you think fear of violence from the public prevents people of colour from participating in social justice work?
Carol—In private conversations, I have been told “I’m not going out there, not me” as a result of some fear because of the colour of their skin; from the tone of what I am told I perceive a fear to violence. I also sense from folks that they do not see themselves represented.
Solange—Can you describe the feeling you felt when you attended and participated in your first rally? Did you feel invisible? Did people ‘remember’ that you were there?
Carol—In 1997 at the beginning of my teaching career, I walked the picket line in front of the little elementary school where I taught, as one of about eight people on my shift. I remember being passionate about our resistance to the Mike Harris agenda and was overjoyed when this regime was ousted. I remained mentally alert while walking up and down the front of my school, but did it anyway and distracted myself by chatting with a colleague while walking. Yet the underlying reluctance to attend big rallies remained with me.
I participated in my first rally during the fall of 2019. This event took place in a small city with a sizable group of about 40 people. I decided to attend because I became quite involved in OSSTF/FEESO and wanted to ‘’put my money where my mouth is’’ so to speak. As a former staff co-rep at my worksite and someone who is known by others as involved in OSSTF/FEESO, I want to encourage colleagues to go out in support of the negotiations. By setting an example and attending, I remained passionate about the issues at stake in this round of negotiations. During these recent rounds of rally and picketing, I felt quite comfortable and safe from any aggression directed to me by anyone. It was being in the company of colleagues/friends. This eliminated the feeling of isolation. I have willingly attended many more rallies over this latest period of negotiations and labour unrest with the Ford government.
Solange—How do you think we can ensure the safety of people of colour who engage in activism?
Carol—When I think back to the Civil Rights movement again, there were many non-African-Americans who may be termed allies of those who were targets of racism. Those folks were not out of danger; however, their presence was valued. I believe that we need to use that model and have non-people of colour walking alongside people of colour. This has served me to feel less vulnerable. I see a group of all African-Canadians feeling more targeted.
Solange—You mentioned it is important for people of colour to have allies. I believe and agree that this is vital. There appears to be a belief that when a group of African-Canadians congregate that this leads to trouble, violence. While it is important to have allies, I also feel disheartened that there is a NEED for allies. To me, it means that my opinion and my safety is dependent upon the agreeance or acceptance of non African-Canadians. In order for my activism to be well-meaning it needs to be validated. This cannot and should not be. I am not saying that this is factual, I am saying that based upon numerous conversations with people of colour, they share this similar belief. In a most recent picketing, two African-Canadian women were victims of violence by a non African-Canadian. One woman was hit by his vehicle, which resulted in a serious knee injury and another woman on a different date had her vehicle hit and damaged by the same driver who hit the previous woman. People of colour are disproportionately more targeted for violence. This fear at times is a deterrent for being involved in activism. The end goal is not just having allies but that we stand together. Not the white person serving as an ally, but as equals in a strong stance.
The individual experiences of our membership matter—each story, each experience helps shape our actions locally and provincially. For Carol, the support and solidarity she felt helped develop her own activism. The strength attained through this experience acts as a political spark, and often it can lead to continued activism and leadership. Carol’s experiences do not stand as a singular example or the complexities of race and activism, but act instead as a spotlight on how we can approach engaging our members in social justice activism.