Equity, anti-racism, and anti-oppression work through the archaeology of self

Abstract image of person with fragmented watercolour brown, black and sandy hues with accented line segments outlining facial features and hair lines on a sandy stone background texture.

Foundational practice and reflection

Imagine immersing yourself in a world where the quest for human rights, social justice, and advocacy are the foundational principles that are often denied or challenged by the venom of overt racism, discrimination, and/or hate? This is the call of humanity for those doing work for a more equitable, inclusive, and accessible society, and more specifically for each Bargaining Unit Equity, Anti-Racism, and Anti-Oppression Officer who is tasked to assist in confronting and eliminating systemic discrimination and social inequities within the union, school boards, and society at large.

Dealing with issues of equity, anti-racism, and anti-oppression is critical work that can be exhausting. Anyone who tells you different isn’t providing you with the full scope and depth of issues that you must face daily.

Ensuring the full understanding of concepts used throughout this written piece is clearly defined, it is important to note the meaning of the following terms:

Equity is ensuring fairness and justice in access and outcomes to address structural imbalances and to achieve substantive equality in all aspects of a person’s life.

Anti-Racism is the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices, and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably.

Anti-Oppression is the method and process to “identify strategies and solutions to deconstruct power and privilege in order to mitigate and address the systemic inequalities that often operate simultaneously and unconsciously at the individual, group, and institutional or union level” (Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO)—Anti-Oppressive Framework).

There have been some areas of advancement in the collective consciousness of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) about racism, discrimination, and inequality; however, as a union we must strive to analyze equity metrics to identify indicators and outcomes that will address systemic barriers, while providing a basis for corrective action.

The newly implemented Equity, Anti-Racism, and Anti-Oppression Officer role will work alongside local executive members, union leaders, and/or community stakeholders, “to act as a resource person who will assist in the creation and maintenance of accessible and inclusive local practices and processes to remove barriers to participation,” while assisting with member system navigations through an equity framework. It is crucial to note that equity, anti-racism, and anti-oppression work is a responsibility for all local union leaders and must be infused in each portfolio.

OSSTF/FEESO members must be reminded of the necessity for deep and ongoing transformation where leaders at all levels are called to the commitment to bringing equity to the organizational structures and union spaces, while abolishing racist and discriminatory practices that permeate both the Federation’s organizational structures and the systems of education.

Yolanda Seley-Ruiz’s research focuses on “An Archaeology of Self.” It is a deep excavation and exploration of beliefs, biases, and ideas that shape how we engage in work. This self-awareness model for equity and action can be applied not only in racial literacy development within educational settings but could be seamlessly adopted by anyone working to advance equity, anti-racism, and anti-oppression principles, advocates, members, and leaders in their journey of moving from awareness to action within the Federation at all levels.

Racial literacy development chart



Sankofa—looking back to look forward

Sankofa is a Ghanaian principle derived from the Akan people meaning that one should remember the past to make positive progress in the future. The power of Sankofa centers around this concept—to know history and your heritage is to know your current self, the world around you, and how to better both.

Having a soul-stirring conversation with Pat Wright, mentor, teacher, community activist, author, and the first Black person elected to the OSSTF/FEESO Provincial Executive, reaffirmed the importance of valuing those who have come before us, who now have transcended into the role of cultural knowledge keepers. “Aunty Pat” as she is affectionally known by Black members of the union community, carries out the “conceptualized tenets of African Culture” through her sharing of Elder Spirituality, also known as “Eldercrits” through relational responsibilities of educating the younger generation, as stated by Dr. George Dei, renowned University of Toronto (OISE/UT) professor, researcher and writer who is considered as one of Canada’s foremost scholars on race and anti-racism studies.

Reminiscing about the changes that she has seen within the Federation, governments, and in community during our heartwarming conversation, she stated, “The more we see the change the more it stays the same. The changes are incremental, so often they change, but it is changing so slowly that we may not perceive it. What I believe is happening, which is different now than it was 20 years ago, is that we [OSSTF/FEESO] are now achieving critical mass.”

Social movement activists and scholars often use “critical mass” in a loose metaphorical way to refer to an initial group of protesters or actors that is big enough to accomplish social change; or any context in which things change after a certain number of people get together or enter a setting. Applying critical mass to our frame of reference within the Federation, Pat Wright proclaims that, “we can never bring about the change that we want until we have a critical mass of people who are looking for that change. In certain times in the past, individuals didn’t have a climate where change could flourish.”

Moving forward: awareness to action

Given the difficult and everchanging times that we live in, we must be humble in dialogue and centered in love for humanity when discussing various issues that address individual and systemic discrimination of those who have been historically marginalized and oppressed. Much of the role of the Equity, Anti-Racism, and Anti-Oppression Officer is also rooted in activism and human rights, providing a uniquely compassionate perspective to support OSSTF/FEESO members as they strive for racial justice, social justice, and transformational justice within their professional and personal lives.

Here are a few areas that OSSTF/FEESO, union affiliates, and organizations must strengthen as they continue to review policies, processes, bylaws, events, and communication through an equity, anti-racism, and anti-oppression lens (list is not expansive):

• Tracking equity-centered metrics to inform changes in policies, practices and to measure desired outcomes. Equity-centered data measurements are an essential step to ensuring that more equitable implementations are measured for progress and impact within the Federation and/or organizational structures (i.e. examine equity-based metrics and outcomes in participation and leadership locally and provincially).
• Identifying the causes and impact of human rights violations and efforts to redress them within the organizational structures, more specifically the grievance process.
• Building respectful and continuous relationships with community groups. What pre-existing knowledge do you have about the many cultural/religious/identify-affirming communities in your region? What responsibilities do we have in knowing other communities?
• Strengthening the commitment to equity and anti-racism approaches that continues to examine equity-based barriers to participation and leadership at the local and provincial level.
• Regularly asking how we can make the systems more accessible for all. An Abolitionist mode of thinking challenges us to think about something entirely new.
• Remembering that cultural humility and commitment to community engagement should be relational, intentional, and sustainable, rather than performative and transactional. Communities are aware of the power imbalances that exists within social institutions that may want to gain their support.

Kamilah Clayton, founder of Adwo Counselling & Consulting Services, spoke to the importance of “Centering Wellness in Equity Work” to the newly appointed OSSTF/FEESO Equity, Anti-Racism, and Anti-Oppression Officers in December 2022. She brought attention to the behaviours of individuals who resist equity work, which are often more harmful and pronounced based on one’s social identities, and intersectionalities—as a Black woman I have been the unfortunate recipient of these injurious behaviours.

The session objectives delivered highlighted the importance of the following:
• Building a community of support
• Adopting wellness practices into their day-to-day routine
• Setting healthy boundaries and balance are important for self-care and help prevent burnout
• Centering and contextualizing experiences of racial harm
• Experiencing vicarious trauma
• Clarifying of the role within the local
• Prioritizing safety

In speaking my truth, I have experienced overt and covert forms of resistance, as well as different forms of harm within union spaces, school environments, and in social interaction. The harm experienced took on countless incarnations: erasure, silencing, resistance, gaslighting, disparaging comments, lateral violence, horizontal oppression, and racial trauma. I share my insights, to emphasize how crucial it is for those engaging in equity work to have a network of supports, which also may include mental health and wellness practitioners, that can be readily accessed for support and harm reduction.

The role of the Federation’s Equity, Anti-Racism, and Anti-Oppression Officer is hard work. This hard work is foundationally, heart work. Heart work is deeply personal, complex, nuanced, and contextual. My personal ancestral commitment to myself, my children, family, and community anchors me in seeking racial justice, social justice, human rights, and transformative justice in every space that I enter. It is my belief that, “No one is outside of the circle of humanity. No one is outside the circle of human concern. We cannot tolerate racist and discriminatory activities that choose to harm, oppress, or erase one’s identity and presence in the world.” This is a commitment that I leave as my legacy. Ubuntu.

About Carmella Goodridge
Carmella Goodridge (she/her/elle) Dismantling Anti-Black Racism Officer/Equity, Anti-Racism, and Anti-Black Racism Officer District 16, York Region

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