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BCTF Advantage
Teacher Magazine Volume 29, Number 1
September/October 2016

BCTF aims to open doors to all

By Nancy Knickerbocker, Director, BCTF Communications and Campaigns

“I used to think that equity meant closing the door on straight white guys like me, but now I understand that it really means opening doors to all the other people who have been excluded in the past.”
-Clint Johnston, BCTF Second Vice-President

How can the BCTF open itself up to members who feel excluded or discriminated against?

This question has been central to an initiative underway since the 2014 Annual General Meeting carried an Executive Committee recommendation to “undertake an equity audit in order to determine the diversity of the membership, in order to provide more effective service and support to members of our union in dealing with equity issues.”

“It is important for unions to reflect the diversity of their membership, and strive to eliminate barriers that some members experience because of who they are or how they are perceived,” says Glen Hansman, BCTF President. “The Federation has long advocated for meaningful inclusion and for the end of discrimination in our schools and broader society. While it is not a new conversation for us to also seek the same within our union, our renewed efforts in this area are critical at this time and for our future.”

Over a two-year period, BCTF leaders, members, and staff undertook a very thoughtful process that included discussions with the Committee for Action on Social Justice and other advisory committees; meetings with representatives from other unions, organizations, and individuals working to advance equity and inclusion; a series of focus groups with members who identified as being from equity-seeking groups; and a survey of 3,000 randomly selected members.

While the member survey elicited a fairly low response rate (just over 10%) it nonetheless offered some important insights. For example, the number of respondents who said that they had witnessed discrimination was approximately half of the number of respondents who said they had experienced discrimination themselves. This gap points to the importance of hearing from members of equity-seeking groups directly, as discrimination is not always noticed when it's not experienced directly. The survey revealed that, although not everyone is aware of it, clearly discrimination does exist within the BCTF and it has an impact on member engagement.
Here are some other themes that emerged in the research process:
The expectation that a member from a particular group, especially in the case of visible minorities, must be the voice and carry all the issues for that group. One member said: “When you are at a meeting and the only Aboriginal person, when anything Aboriginal comes up, they all turn and look at you.”

The likelihood of members to encounter discrimination, racism, and exclusion. Some members spoke about assumptions colleagues make based on stereotypes and actions that ranged from simple misunderstanding to overt racism. Members described being told that they were not to speak in their first language in the staffroom, not being seen as a “real” teacher, and being ignored by their colleagues.

The increased vulnerability of members from minority or equity-seeking groups and the feeling that they must prove themselves all the time, much more so than other members. A gay member spoke about the active worry about whether the administration will speak out in support if he has to deal with homophobic parents. Another member spoke about the way colleagues and parents react to his accent, and how many abbreviate his name, rather than learn to pronounce it.

The critical importance of allies and union leaders who will advocate, show an interest, and speak up for minorities. Some said that they knew their local and the BCTF “had their back.” Conversely others spoke about feeling alone and stigmatized.

The importance of creating a supportive environment at the school, local, and Federation where members are included and encouraged, and can be themselves. One participant stated, “Empathy is so important to bring people from different backgrounds into the union. It allows us to be good stewards to the people we are looking out for.”

A report called “Diversity, equity, and inclusion in the BCTF” was presented at the June meeting of the Executive Committee and, after much discussion, the EC passed 17 recommendations to ensure a lasting commitment to equity and inclusion in all aspects of the Federation's work.

The BCTF has a long and proud history as a social justice union, but the equity audit has shown that more remains to be done in this area. This is complex work that may sometimes be controversial or uncomfortable, especially when it involves examining privilege and power. However, there are both principled and practical reasons for doing it. Equity is a moral imperative, a question of living our commitment to social justice and human rights. And equity is also a powerful tool to strengthen the union. 

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