When she began her high school education at Brooks Composite High School, Cindy Li says the topic of race was considered “touchy” and left largely unspoken, even though the school boasts one of the most diverse student bodies in Canada.
Now, having wrapped Grade 12, Li reports that the institution she graduated from this past spring has changed significantly from the one she first entered three years ago, thanks to the advocacy and activism of students such as herself.
She notes that once largely ignored occasions such Black History Month and Asian Heritage Month are now being given attention. There is also a Diversity Club, which hosts events such as Cultural Days where students can try out activities such as braiding and scarf wrapping while enjoying a taste of bannock or spring rolls with Japanese sauces.
Perhaps most impressively, though, Eid-al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, is now recognized as an official school holiday thanks to the lobbying efforts of Brooks’ students.
Big changes in once-small town
Such initiatives make for a more equitable environment and better serve a student body that not only includes the highest proportion of Black Canadians of any census tract in Canada, but also families from every corner of the globe. With Brooks’ meatpacking industry attracting — and actively recruiting — immigrant labour over the course of recent decades, the formerly sleepy prairie town has swelled to full city status, with the resulting demographic shift reflected in Brooks Composite’s hallways and classrooms.
“As a Muslim, I thought that [recognizing Eid] was beneficial to not just our school, but all of the other schools in our district,” says Selma Abdulkadir, another member of the Brooks Class of 2023.
“I know that things like this can kind of alienate people and cause division, but we were lucky that that wasn't really the case at our school.”
What precipitated this seemingly wholesale change in both the social and educational climate at the school? While the students themselves did the bulk of the heavy lifting, their efforts were supported and facilitated by the school’s administration, particularly vice-principal Michelle Veroba and a UCalgary team led by Werklund research professor Rahat Zaidi, PhD.
“In 2020 and 2021, a group of Black students essentially took leadership," explains Dr. Zaidi. "They prepared a series of events dealing with blackness because they had a lot of interracial and ethnic-type problems that were taking place in the school as well as in the community, and the students felt that they were being discriminated against based on colour, race, ethnicity, and also language.”
This is where Zaidi and her team entered the picture at the invitation of Veroba. With funding from the Alberta Partner Research Program, they engaged the students over the course of two years, forming focus groups and an advisory committee, establishing the Diversity Club, and helping them communicate their experiences through a social media campaign.
A world-class opportunity
The project culminated this spring with an invitation for a Brooks student contingent, including Li and Abdulkadir, to share their experiences through the presentation Activism and Advocacy During Troubled Times: A Roadmap for Improved Practices Among Newcomer Youth at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Chicago — one of just two Canadian teams invited to participate.
“We spoke to the president of the AERA and were able to present our information," says Li. "It was just so inspiring to be in a room with so many, like many people who are trying to make a change.
“Rahat really let us speak. Going through school, a lot of us didn't speak out about this kind of stuff, and this really gave us an opportunity to be able to speak out and give first-hand experiences of what was going on within our school system. She helped us a lot to make the changes that we're seeing within our school.”
“One of the best parts of attending the conference was being able to see and listen to successful and educated people of colour, striving to better the education system, and tackle the issues and challenges within it,” concurs her team member Kanaalaq Hoyland, who identifies as Indigenous.
The transformative impact of the project, however, was not just felt by the student participants.
“We often talk about working with communities and developing partnerships, but this was completely inspirational for me because I got to spend time with these community members and see first-hand what it takes to do this kind of work,” says Zaidi.
“It gave me a sense of ‘How do you develop advocacy movements within communities? How do you get youth mobilized? What is it about this kind of work that can then inform my future work?’ So, I think that has been a learning curve for me as well.”