What does it mean to de-colonize education? Unique event explores social justice in city schooling

Vidya Rajasingam
Vidya Rajasingam, a fifth-year psychology student, says that civic engagement should "give youth the knowledge and social capital to know they have a place in the community.” (Photo by Tina Adamopoulos)

Tina Adamopoulos

Vidya Rajasingam was dismayed at how the media portrays violence in Scarborough, particularly in Malvern.

She sees the area as a robust community, but says people do not see that until they take time to understand it. For her, debunking common misperceptions starts with civic engagement and seeing what resources are available in a community, especially in neighbourhood improvement areas.

“The idea in civic engagement is to give youth the knowledge and social capital to know they have a place in the community and influence at the local level,” says Rajasingam, a fifth-year psychology and human geography student.

Rajasingam works with Trinity Theatre, a non-profit organization facilitating youth-led community development programs. The organization works to develop personal and communal leadership skills and empower youth, which includes linking intergenerational groups to create mentorship opportunities.

Initiatives such as this were just one of the discussion topics raised to U of T Scarborough students, faculty, graduate students and community members on how they are addressing social justice in schooling. Organized by professor Mark Hunter and his students, the City Schooling and Social Justice conference focused on unpacking the relations between geography and schooling in the GTA and communities across Canada.

Community members from Tropicana Community Services, the Scarborough East Boys and Girls Club and the Turtle Island Conservation took part. Topics included race, gender as well as ways to decolonize education following recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

It was an opportunity “to provide a forum where undergrads can mix with graduate students and community groups around a conversation centered on education,” says Hunter, an associate professor in the Department of Human Geography at U of T Scarborough.

 The discussion stems from Hunter’s course, Geographies of Education, where students learn about education inequalities. For their final paper, they write an autoethnography, using theory to understand the inequalities around them.

 “I feel as a faculty member we have a responsibility to do that and engage with our students in working with community groups so everyone can learn from one another,” Hunter says.

Olivia Bernard, a former undergraduate student, was one of the organizers of the event. She is now a masters of geography student at U of T St. George, studying race in education in Toronto.

 In high school, students are categorized academically by applied or academic course levels. Bernard looks at the streaming system at the Grade 9 and 10 levels, and how racialized students, primarily those who identify as Black, are disproportionately streamed into applied level courses.

“This is based off of perceivability, so not from what students can do but what guidance councillors and teachers think they can do,” Bernard says. “Sometimes stereotypes play a role in that.”

She explains that 40 per cent of students who enter applied level courses don’t graduate, which leaves them disadvantaged in accessing employment or a gateway to post-secondary education.

With hopes of making this an annual event, Bernard says addressing issues of schooling and social justice, especially making U of T Scarborough a meeting place for it, is vital for the institution to initiate change.

“We’re ensuring that we are accessing the wider Scarborough area and that we are not just a university, but facilitating the bridge between students and the wider community.”