Photo courtesy of HWDSB Kids Need Help
A History Of Us
On Monday June 22nd, after hosting a sit-in on the street for almost seven hours, we celebrated and danced as we listened in on the school board meeting, where trustees ultimately voted to terminate the Police Liaison Program for the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB). After four years of work, and a month-long campaign, the trustees voted in our favour because we mobilized the public, and because we sustained pressure.
HWDSB Kids Need Help is a group of former and current HWDSB students as well as community members. We are an advocacy body for students and families experiencing discrimination and injustices that are not being addressed by the school board. We operate within an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, anti-oppressive revolutionary framework, and practice this by sharing our resources, knowledge and power. And we are in no way affiliated with the school board.
Our organization was formed in November of 2017 in response to an incident of police violence, anti-Black racism and ableism at Westdale Secondary School in Hamilton, Ont., where a Black Muslim student with autism was forcibly handcuffed and removed from her school by the Hamilton police. We operated as advocates for the family, providing them with a pro bono lawyer and consistent support in addressing this violence at the school board level.
Much of the school board’s current equity-related work is informed by marginalized students who continue to advocate for themselves. This work is laborious, emotional and tiresome—and it is the reality of many student organizers across the province.
HWDSB Kids supports student organizers through work that is directly informed by an anti-racist, anti-oppressive pedagogical lens. While in our written reports we have done data collection to provide empirical evidence of discrimination in schools, this has not historically been our main method of organizing; racialized and Black students need to be believed regardless of whether data, in the way institutions understand it, is available.
Organizing is about shifting power. Too often, centrists tell us to work within systems, provide anti-Black racism training, or offer solutions on how institutions should not oppress us. This type of work only serves those who are in power.
Sometimes organizations are willing to tolerate or accommodate a little bit of dissent or advocacy in their system to legitimize them as ‘anti-racist’ and ‘progressive.’ But often it amounts to our work and the changes that we have pushed for being used as a PR stunt to convince the public that these established institutions are doing the work, and that they are ‘for the people.’
In our case, we sat at the table with the school board for years, we offered reports, training, etc., but this never translated into actual change. Instead, we were lauded and celebrated for our ‘advocacy’, tokenized by the very same system that we opposed, and distracted from the actual work that needed to be done.
Sometimes working in and with the system separated us from our community—we could speak the school board’s language, we had access to transportation that allowed us to attend these meetings, we were seen as “model” students. And sometimes, in the moment, it felt good—it felt like an institution as large as the HWDSB was on our side. This is often a way for those in positions of power to pacify us, and also improve their image in the community.
As organizers, we will not fall for these tactics again. Internal pressure can only do so much: what counts is community.
Although the work to remove cops from schools was an arduous process that took almost four years, many people informed and supplemented our advocacy, and their support and involvement helped ensure its success. Our pressure, our organizing, our anger and our community is what made us win, not the countless bureaucratic meetings at the school board. Building genuine interpersonal relationships in our community that are informed by care and mutual aid is what carried us.
Throughout this process we learned that organizing is about shifting power back into our communities. About unleashing the power that already exists among our people. We campaigned, built pressure, created a culture of advocacy and channeled our righteous rage by organizing a sit-in for seven hours—the duration of the school board meeting—on our main street. And we were successful.
We now know that we are the only ones who will liberate us.
Part of our work as organizers necessitates that we train youth, and equip them with the language to understand that their experiences in school are part of a bigger system of anti-Black racism that is intentional and rooted in the foundation of ‘Canada.’ No one ever teaches us how to disrupt oppression in schools.
As organizers we must put this knowledge that is absent from our schools back into our communities. That is why an important part of our work is about providing radical education to youth, just like community members have done for us, and others have done for them.
A critical tool for building sustainable movements is to continuously re-shift power through radical education in our communities: training and empowering youth and other people who are interested in this work. This is not as easy as it sounds
Our communities are traumatized by colonialism, imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy—we often carry these systems of power back into our community. There are also very long-lasting systems of oppression that have existed in our communities that have harmed and isolated people for a very long time. We have to disrupt these forms of oppression first as we work in organizing circles. When we say that no one is disposable—a politic that guides us—we also mean that we must protect the marginalized members in our communities from harm. We must be explicit in our efforts to disrupt transphobia, homophobia, misogyny and misogynoir. Although we must give people the space to learn and unlearn it should not, and cannot, be at the expense of those in our organizing family.
We also know that our communities have a sophisticated and very clear analysis on racism, colonialism and capitalism. We understand that although this knowledge is not taught in schools or encouraged, it exists. We are not educating people on things that they don’t already know. Our education is about giving the people names for things that they are already experiencing, about giving them the vocabulary to describe racism and oppression and to make connections between our shared struggles.
People’s lived experiences cannot be theorized—our communities know intimately the harm that has been caused. By equipping our communities with this language to understand white supremacy and how oppressions intersect, we have already begun the work of liberation.
HWDSB Kids Need Help is a group of former and current HWDSB students and community members advocating for Hamiltonians who are experiencing and organizing against discrimination and injustice in schools and in the broader Hamilton community.