On Sunday, March 21, Laura Mae Lindo, MPP for Kitchener Centre, invited members of the community to come together virtually to mark the International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Lindo also had a surprise in store – the inaugural Black Excellence in Leadership Academy (BELA) awards, given to a group of local organizations, and one individual: Deepa Ahluwalia, Human Rights and Equity Advisor at the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB).
“I am so pleased to call Deepa my friend, and my colleague in this work,” Lindo said of Ahluwalia. “My sister in the mission.”
Lindo wanted to recognize Ahluwalia, especially, in hopes of highlighting the important role played by individuals who make a sustained effort to keep attention on the important work of addressing systemic racism.
“It takes these leaders in the system to be able to do this work,” said Lindo while presenting the award. “That is what you’re doing Deepa, each and every day.”
Ahluwalia was grateful to be recognized, but also quick to share the recognition with her colleagues in the Indigenous, Equity and Human Rights Department, and the students, staff and community members who have been intimately involved in the Black Brilliance work of the WRDSB.
“This award isn’t just for me,” said Ahluwalia. “There are so many people in our system that are doing really incredible work to support African, Caribbean and Black students,”
For Ahluwalia, one of the most meaningful outcomes has been the relationships, connections and networks that have been built as a result of this work. Several students who were involved in attending and supporting the Black Brilliance work as students, stayed in touch when they made the transition to community member, as they remain invested in making the WRDSB a better system for all.
“A big part of why this work has been so enriching is because I have been able to meet with some amazing students,” said Ahluwalia. “That’s been really, really powerful.”
Not only was Ahluwalia recognized individually, the Black Brilliance work the WRDSB has been engaged in since 2017 was also recognized. This group includes both former and current students and staff, in addition to community members and groups like the Black Brilliance Advisory Council. Some examples of the group’s work include the annual Black Brilliance Conference, the Speaker Series, and other ongoing strategies for the achievement and well-being of African, Caribbean and Black students.
“To all of the Black Brilliance team, I just wanted to say thank you,” said Lindo. “For the amazing work that you’re doing, for creating that space.”
The impact of the Black Brilliance team can be seen looking at the number of Black Student Unions (BSU), Black Student Association (BSA) and African Heritage Clubs that now exist in schools throughout the WRDSB. Individually, these groups ensure that students have a space where all can feel welcome, and feel their lived experiences are heard and appreciated. Together, they help to build a sense of community for students throughout the WRDSB.
Bethelyn, a student at Bluevale Collegiate Institute (BCI), shared her experience with the BSA at her school, and the Black Brilliance Conferences.
“Those conferences…introduced me to so many other Black students in the WRDSB,” said Bethelyn. She was especially struck by the supportive nature of the events, and how far the Black student community reaches outside of BCI.
Christoper Ashley, is a history teacher at Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School (KCI), and one of the staff sponsors of the African Heritage Club, along with his colleague, Carol Pinnock. He spoke at the event about how he sees his role to be one of teaching from an anti-racist perspective, to provide students with the skills to actively be anti-racists themselves.
“We’re all the same, our cosmetic differences are only that. I can accept blood and organ transfusion and transplants from anyone and go on living and thriving. So, if racism is taught, then anti-racism education can also be taught. Our efforts to create a better world for this and our next generation are required,” said Ashley.
While she’s happy the efforts of all those who support the WRDSB Black Brilliance program are being recognized, Ahluwalia knows the journey is far from over, and there is plenty of work still yet to be done. The road ahead is full of possibilities to make change, and she explained the path to a better system for all relies on the meaningful involvement of students and community members. That is when there is a possibility for transformation.
“Side by side, working together – that’s when the magic happens.”