A Brief Keynote on Equity

This past summer, I took a nice long break from writing where I forced myself not to feel forced to write. During July and August, I would write sporadically, but having just completed the grueling process of an M.A. Thesis, I felt that this summer was a good time to take a break. But, like I’ve said in the past, we teachers are afforded the opportunity to have two New Year’s celebrations so to speak. And the start of the school year is the one that I typically use to re-calibrate areas in my professional growth where I have fallen off. Fortunately, I was able to inaugurate my “fourth quarter of 2016” by delivering a keynote on equity addressing student leaders at the University of Toronto. The topic was concerning how we, as leaders (and that includes teachers of course), can create equitable spaces in the communities we work in. And by community, I am speaking about the community inside the school. The hallways, playgrounds and of course, classrooms. Below is an extremely condensed version of some of the main ideas I ventured into during my presentation:


“Part of leading with an equity lens means having an understanding that relationships are complex. The relationships we foster can be interpersonal, intrapersonal, and systemic. We create relationships with ourselves, with others and with the system. But what I want to hone in on at this point is the ways in which we form relationships with the system, or society; and with that being understood, I want to deconstruct what we make of and how we make a relationship with space. You could argue that the space of my high school was similar, or perhaps near identical, to the space of my university. There were classrooms, cafeterias, desks, alternative sites for learning and socializing, students, and people in positions of authority. However, I felt that the space of my university was completely foreign to me. The reason being? High school, with peers who looked like me, spaces that were, ironically enough, more open to expressing my personhood, and aspects of the school culture that made me seem at home made my experience in that setting somewhat inviting. And because of this, it actually made high school enjoyable. When I got to university, the space became prioritized with academia. And of course, there is nothing wrong with that. But because that was the university’s primary function, and the university space was saturated with bodies that did not look like me; in fact there were weeks on campus that would pass before I would see another person that shared the same “origin” or culture (on the surface) as me, it almost became suffocating. Subconsciously then, I equated university space to equal white space. The “ivory tower” was indeed beyond a metaphor.


The effects of this experience are pertinent. Many times in university, I would come off as disengaged with the community. School became a transaction. As one friend of mine would constantly relay to me, school was now a three-part game that we had to master if we wanted to make it out: get in, get out, get the grade. On to the next. Sure, when we speak about equality, this seems perfectly rational. Many are doing the same. But when we talk about equity, this is where space has an implicit function on our schooling experiences.


There is a major difference between equality and equity. Equality is giving everyone the exact same opportunity. If we had a race, we would both start at the same spot, begin running at the same time, and try our hardest to place first as we headed towards an equal pre-determined distance. When we take this analogy and consider equity, it is an understanding that perhaps one of us had to run an entire race even before getting to the starting line of this new race. When we realize that some people have had obstacles in their way even before “starting at the same spot and racing the same distance” as a peer, we can begin to understand that equality is not the same thing as equity.


When we grasp what equity truly is, we can begin to lead, and build capacity, with a lens for it. Part of building equity in a community is capturing the fact that difference is a good thing. Difference has been saturated with negative connotations for decades. The trope has been soaked through with such disdain that we have “evolved” into thinking that seeing difference is wrong; many believe that seeing difference should be avoided. This sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth. When we negate difference we devolve to the fallical idea of equality instead of a more complex, and better serving, understanding of equity. When we avoid difference, we silence culture, agency, and history. When we neglect to talk about difference, we negate personhood. Dismissing difference has fostered this post modern idea of a color-blind ethos.


I want you to see my color. I need you to recognize that I am different than you. Only then, when we acknowledge our difference, can we begin to have a conversation about equity. So, the first step to building equity then becomes recognizing difference. Only when we put our identity politics to the side can we actually have a dialogue. Dialogue is our baseline when creating capacity in terms of building capacity. But dialogue also acknowledges that we have moved beyond recognizing difference and are ready to embrace difference. Once we still the “color blind, everything is all good” idea, we can move towards creating a more equitable community. And finally, when we move towards embracing difference we can begin to learn from difference.


This is the key right here. We must be willing to accept that we can actually learn from difference. Part of the challenge is that many think that there is nothing that we can learn from difference. Again, this is a backwards approach to leading. We must be willing and able to listen to others who may have different experiences than us. If we take these three steps as a framework for building equity within a community, we will then be able to actually create that equitable community.”


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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