The Winnipeg School Division — in which there are nearly 170 student ethnicities and almost 7,000 immigrant and refugee learners — will have the province’s first education equity office.
Earlier this week, trustees unanimously voted to establish a first-of-its-kind branch that will oversee anti-racism initiatives and collect data on diversity demographics in its 78 schools.
"The stars are aligning," said Crystal Laborero, co-chairwoman of Equity Matters, a coalition dedicated to boosting outcomes for students who are Indigenous, newcomers, and members of other racialized groups. "There is an impetus happening in our community to say, ‘We know we need to do something different.’"
“There is an impetus happening in our community to say, ‘We know we need to do something different.’” — Crystal Laborero, co-chairwoman of Equity Matters
The coalition launched a campaign last month to call on the province and divisions to create offices dedicated to addressing barriers for marginalized students.
Upwards of 80 community organizations have endorsed its calls to action, including the Manitoba School Boards Association and Winnipeg, Louis Riel, St. James-Assiniboia and Pembina Trails divisions.
The WSD board has since agreed to create an advisory council to develop an action plan, including a proposed mandate, structure, transition plan and budget to launch its education equity office by Aug. 1, 2022. It has also committed to hiring an external organization to conduct an audit on employment equity.
Chairwoman Betty Edel, who proposed the board establish the unit, said these actions will build on the division’s "good intentions" on this file.
"This moves us from words to actions," said the trustee.
Edel added the office will allow WSD to analyze everything from staff demographics to overall factors that limit racialized students’ success at school.
Equity Matters’ pitch is that creating separate entities in charge of collecting annual data on student demographics, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, and outcomes will allow educators to pinpoint key gaps, set goals and implement training and other initiatives to address those gaps.
"Unless staff are trained and have the skills and necessary tools, they are not going to be able to move this forward. That’s why anti-racist, anti-oppression, anti-colonialism training is important," said Suni Matthews, co-chairwoman of the coalition, who is a retired principal in WSD.
Both Matthews and Laborero noted transparency is critical when it comes to setting up these offices so the public can hold divisions to account on their objectives, be they about improving student absenteeism or increasing staff diversity.
As far as trustee Jennifer Chen is concerned, creating an organizational structure to address systemic racism is urgent.
"Working with the newcomer community, I often hear feedback that policy is important, but implementing policy is even more important. I hope that the equity office has the power it is supposed to have," said Chen.
Equity Matters has long called attention to Ontario’s education equity offices as an example of how such entities could operate in Manitoba.
The coalition will host a virtual event with Patrick Case, who oversees the education equity secretariat in Ontario’s education department, as a keynote speaker to discuss the role of equity offices in his province on Thursday.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.