By Sunjum Jhaj, Editor, Teacher magazine
The first time I met Jelana Bighorn, Member-at-Large on the Anti-Oppression Educators Collective (AOEC) Executive Committee, she shared the radical notion that oppression could be eradicated in one generation if our education system was designed to address the injustices inherent in society. This is, no doubt, true. Schools play a critical role in preparing students for the future. The question is, are we preparing students for a future that looks like the present, where white supremacist, colonial, patriarchal systems of power predominate, or are we preparing students to challenge normalized oppressions and create a more just society?
Oppression can be defined as unjust treatment that disadvantages certain groups. There are many different forms of oppression: sexism, racism, homophobia, and economic oppression, just to name a few. Systems of oppression are the structures within society that allow unjust treatment to continue and perpetuate the inequalities that have plagued our society for centuries.
AOEC is working to change the ways in which we are all, to some extent, complicit in supporting systems of oppression.
So, how does one even begin to dis-mantle these systems of oppression and work toward creating socially just communities? The first step is to learn to name and recognize oppression. For the AOEC, this means engaging in ongoing learning both collectively and individually.
AOEC members meet regularly for anti-oppression book club meetings to continually learn, unlearn, and share. Together, they learn about anti-oppression struggles and reflect on their work and personal experiences related to oppression. Last summer, they read Harsha Walia’s Border and Rule. This spring, they read Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ‘Til We Free Us.
“We intentionally choose books that may not seem immediately related to education,” said Karine Ng, AOEC Treasurer. “We want to challenge the idea that education is disconnected from larger social movements.”
The book club meetings are open to all AOEC members and any teachers interested in learning more about oppression and anti-oppression movements. This not only gives members an opportunity to learn from each other and from experts in the field, it also opens the door to personal reflection and unlearning.
So much of the oppression we see in schools today is normalized by larger social practices. This internal reflective work is a long journey, and as any AOEC member will tell you, there is always more to learn and unlearn.
Working toward a just society
Over the past few years, the AOEC has created several opportunities for teachers and community members to participate in the work of dismantling oppression and creating a just society. On an individual level, AOEC members offer workshops and facilitate learning as needed in their schools and local communities. On a provincial level, AOEC has organized and hosted virtual events for teachers to learn from students and marginalized people about what is needed in order to dismantle oppression in schools.
Past virtual events include a workshop centring Black student voices titled Confronting Anti-Black Racism in Schools, a conference called Teaching to Dismantle Borders: Neutrality Is Not an Option, and a climate justice webinar.
Following the confirmation of unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada last spring, the AOEC launched a campaign for two in-service days each school year to create time and space for settler teachers to read and understand the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“As an organization, we’re looking at ways to develop tools and process so we can move beyond dialogue and discussion to real accountability,” said Shanee Prasad, AOEC President.
Their request for dedicated in-service days was denied after meeting with Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside. However, the campaign did not end there. Many teachers from across the province heard the AOEC’s call to “Read, Learn, Reckon” and took it upon them-selves to engage in reconciliation and decolonization on in-service days throughout the school year.
“Teachers want to do better and know more, but we’re seeing that we can’t always rely on systems to create opportunities for us to dismantle oppression,” said Preet Lidder, AOEC Vice-President.
The work of dismantling oppression can be difficult. The daily struggle against people and systems that deny your right to equity is heavy. AOEC members have encountered resistance to anti-oppression work and new barriers at every step. However, the community they’ve created has helped them all find support and joy in this work.
“I was planning my exit from the teaching profession,” said Karine. “It’s magical I found this community. It has given me new energy. The fight isn’t easier together, but it’s more meaningful.”
Each AOEC member I spoke with shared a story of finding belonging, solidarity, and compassion within this organization.
“There’s so much racism in all of the spaces we occupy, and we see so much backlash to anti-oppression work,” said Shanee. “AOEC is a place of hope and encouragement. It’s a shelter in so many ways, especially for BIPOC women.”
That is not to say that the AOEC is a group of like-minded teachers with similar backgrounds. Rather, they’re a diverse group with one shared goal: to create a more just world for everyone. And as an organization, they are modelling what true inclusion and anti-oppression looks like.
What happens when we eliminate barriers and give everyone a safe, fair, and equitable way to participate? For starters, we increase participation from all groups, including marginalized groups whose voices tend to be excluded. With increased participation, we see better representation in leadership. In the AOEC’s case, we see a leadership team that represents the diversity of BC teachers. The AOEC is showing all members, no matter their background or experience, they have a home in this organization and in this union.
“There is so much to be gained by bringing together people with different perspectives, opinions, and insights,” said Jelana. “We will stay in this cycle of hurt and oppression unless we’re willing to push through together.”