In the week of August 24, more than 160 Branksome Hall employees took part in the first session of five book clubs, designed to explore social justice issues and support anti-Black racism education at a systemic level.
From a list of books submitted by Branksome employees, Joshua Watkis, a Canadian National Slam Poetry Champion, arts educator and spoken word artist who has worked at Branksome with Senior and Middle School English students for several years, curated his top five.
All employees selected one book to read over the summer and some volunteered to facilitate discussions. The texts were Between the World and Me
by Ta'Nehisi Coates, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Nobody Knows My Name
by James Baldwin, The Skin We're In
by Desmond Cole, and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
by Beverly Daniel Tatum.
In a short video for Branksome employees, Watkis said, “You may learn entirely new ways to engage with the world and the people you meet in it, including your peers and most importantly, your future students,” says Joshua Watkis.
“Each group’s facilitators are not supposed to be the ‘experts’ on the topic,” says Junior School Social Worker and facilitator Carolyn Mak. “The hope is that people will feel more at ease discussing their true and authentic feelings if they know that racism is about how we are raised—the air we breathe, the media we consume, what we choose to believe and how we choose to live.”
Some of the suggested discussion questions provided by Mira Gambhir, Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, who guides the initiative, include: What do the authors tell us about hope for improvement in race and ethnocultural relations in Canada, U.S. and beyond? (You may wish to discuss this in the context of the events of this summer, and in particular the Black Lives Matter movement.)
To support various comfort levels and build camaraderie, an anonymous poll allowed group participants to express their initial reticence or enthusiasm about discussing race and racism. “The goal is to use the texts as springboards for other explorations into seminal moments in Black history, further readings and guest speaker invitations,” says facilitator Allison Campbell-Rogers.
There are bound to be many paradigm and perspective shifts as the sessions ensue. “This is a good opportunity to build the foundations and explore race, racism and our shared humanity,” says Gambhir.
As a point of entry with textual engagement, Watkis makes the important point that Black writers are to be seen as writers first. “Their Blackness is not an additive or even a factor, when we examine skill level. However, their Blackness must be considered when you fully understand the difficulty of living the subject matter they are writing about.”
“Jimmy [Baldwin] once asked White America in an interview, ‘How much time do you want for your progress?’ At Branksome, I hope the answer will be, ‘No more time; it comes now.’”