Growing up it wasn’t uncommon for me to be the only one. At times I was the only Black student in my class, or in the entire school. Obviously this came with challenges all year long but particularly during Black History Month. When I reflect back on my experiences, I understand now that advocating for myself was so difficult because I didn’t have the language to do so at home, or in school. Describing my experience, and defining my needs was hard. Often I would shrink aspects of myself in an “attempt to fly under the radar”. This caused deep frustration, which was only reinforced when I tried to use my voice. I remember one year, I asked the Vice principal of my high school if we could celebrate Black History Month. I’ll never forget the answer: “Parker, there aren’t enough of you.”

Many of my experiences inform the work that I do now, as a community organiser, facilitator and youth mentor. Much of my work in school systems involve focus groups for teachers, and students, exercises that ask participants to imagine futures where their needs are met, and how we can shift curriculum in effective, intentional, and safe ways. That being said, it does not come without its challenges.

From my personal experience and in collaboration with a university student, Kerlinda (also a black adoptee) we have developed two lists that I hope will be helpful for parents and educators. The first is the “Please do not do this” list and the second is the ‘Please consider doing this instead’ list. Our hope is that this is an opportunity for both parents, school staff and anyone else supporting children and youth of colour to actively work towards making school a safer place to be. 

“Please do not do this” LIST

  1. Do not ask your class to create projects that require them to act like the historic Black figures they are researching or learning about.
  2. Do not centre your curriculum around Black suffering and death. 
  3. Do not ask your kids to participate in “tribes day”, where kids are put into different groups labelled “tribes” as relationship building exercise, especially as non-indigenous/non-POC teacher/professor.
  4. Do not have BHM “best poster contests” for the most creative Black History Month class poster in classrooms.
  5. Don’t place the labour on students of colour to educate students and staff about black history during this month or any other time of the year. 
  6. Do not place labour on students of colour to find solutions to systemic issues and instances of discrimination in school during this month or any other time of the year. 
  7. Do not shut down conversations of race that can be used as learning moments both during black history month or any time of the year. 
  8. Do not limit studying and celebrating Black History to once a year.
  9. Highlighting the accomplishments of current Black celebrities is not the same as recognizing historical figures that contributed to important areas of literature, science, civil rights, music and arts. Please avoid focusing solely on celebrities.
  10. Don’t assume that black students have in-depth knowledge of civil rights activists and contributors to black excellence and create experiences of shame by acting surprised or calling it out in front of peers. 
  11. Make sure if you are reading literature about black history that the story itself does not centre white saviorism.
  12. Be sure that when you are searching for information about black history that you are using credible sources that are written by black people. 
  13. Don’t assume that the opinion expressed by one black student represents the opinion of all black students, with regards to black history month and any other issue. 
  14. Avoid making Black History month solely about antiracism. The goal is to educate the larger community on black excellence in areas like literature, science, arts and sports.
  15. Do not highlight the accomplishments of your black students in your school during black history month. This is NOT what black history is about. Your acknowledgment of black students accomplishments should occur in the same way you would acknowledge the accomplishments of any other student in your school. 

I understand that there are complex issues that require other advocates in our community. It also requires courage and a commitment to unlearn some of what we know, prioritise self-care and self regulation during hard conversations. I have listened to and heard many ideas and solutions from students and colleagues over the years. The voices have helped Kerlinda and I develop the ‘Please consider doing this instead’ list. 

‘Please consider doing this instead’ LIST

  1. Do your work before black history month to be sure that you are well read, have a good understanding of the purpose of black history month and explore available curriculum written by black people that focuses on historical black excellence.
  2. Centre your students of colour in collaborative ways throughout the year. If your school does not already have an equity or diversity committee, advocate for there to be one and invite any interested students to join. Remember this is a space where the voices of BIPOC youth are to be elevated and they are the experts on their own experiences. 
  3. Invite more voices of colour to your school to showcase the range of Black experience. For example engaging those involved in the arts, political spaces, music, dance, and various professions.
  4. Ask for support, either from your colleagues, or mentors. Avoid putting all the  labour on the one or two black adults in the building but rather to look for resources both within the district and wider community. Create a space within your school to discuss challenges and highlight solutions.This work is never effective when it’s done alone.
  5. Build collaborations between parents and schools in preparation for this month. Parents need an opportunity to advocate for their  child or youth’s experience at school. 
  6. Make space for creative ideas from students who want to celebrate Black History Month, and advocate for their ideas. 
  7. Give yourself grace, and patience, you are up against generations of hurt. Things don’t change overnight. 
  8. Seek out community engagement activities and request continuing education opportunities relating to J.E.D.I values (Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion).
  9. Celebrate diversity with tangible action items that help others understand how to participate in advocacy work.
  10. Strive to make black history month elicit feelings of pride for black students rather than discomfort and frustration. Black History Month should leave black students feeling proud to be black because of the incredible history of excellence that has been showcased. 
  11. Make it your goal to have a well educated school population who is familiar with the contributions of black people throughout history.

Remember that Black History Month is not about educating black students. We already know about black excellence. We don’t need your help. As a black student I can name hundreds of names of white excellence. I would like to know that my peers can say the same thing for black people who have made amazing contributions to history.  

Coauthored by Parker Johnson and Kerlinda Chatwin

Learn more about Parker’s Johnson’s mentoring services. 

Additional Resources for Educators and Parents


Big Dreamers: The Canadian Black History Activity Book for Kids Volume 1 (2nd Edition) : Newton, Akilah, Gabay, Tami, Murrell Cox, Danielle: Books

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