POGO Counsellors strive for excellence in providing culturally-aware support to the diverse group of survivors we work with. Every February we celebrate Black History Month, which gives us an additional opportunity to learn about and reflect on Black culture and apply what we have learned to our work with students. A resource we want to bring attention to this year is the Graduation Coach for Black Students (GCBS) program through an interview with POGO Transitions manager Barb Williams and Ms. Breanna Phillip (Coach Bre), a passionate and inspiring coach in the Halton District School Board.
Barb: Why did the Ministry of Education create the Graduation Coach for Black Students program?
Coach Bre: The Ministry of Education created the role based on data showing that Black students did not feel safe in schools and were not seeing themselves represented either through the presence of Black people in schools or in the school curriculum. Students are experiencing anti-Black racism from staff and peers in an educational system founded on a history of oppression and are not getting appropriate support from staff when these incidents are reported.
Barb: What is your role as a Graduation Coach for Black Students and how long have you been a coach?
Coach Bre: Coaches support Black students and families in navigating their educational experiences and ensure that they are given the tools and circumstances to thrive in the school system. While we offer direct support to students, another significant part of our role is working with school staff to increase their knowledge and understanding of the impacts of anti-Black racism on the educational experiences of Black students. We also hold staff and faculty accountable for ensuring safe and inclusive educational spaces for Black students. Additionally, we aim to support and advocate for parents of Black students, who also face the exact oppression, racism and alienation that their children experience.
The Halton District School Board has a multi-year strategic plan which includes tenets of equity & inclusion and mental health & well-being. The GCBS program offers services, initiatives and programming that foster equity and inclusion for Black students. Coaches also recognize the experience of anti-Black racism can be extremely traumatizing and directly impacts the mental well-being of Black students, so this program is in line with that component of the multi-year plan as well.
The GCBS program will have been at the Halton District School Board for one year as of April 2023, but has been at other school boards since 2020. I started in this role when the Halton District School Board program began.
Barb: Tell us about a particular moment, outcome or activity you are most proud of in your time as a coach.
Coach Bre: There are many, but one I’m most proud of is the outcome of an affinity space in one of the five schools we work at. An affinity space is essentially a classroom that the Black students can make their own by decorating with visual representations of Blackness, for example. An affinity room is designed to be both a place of belonging and a space that belongs to Black students. However, in this instance, when the students were not in the affinity room, the area was used by non-Black identifying school staff for other purposes. Students said they felt that “teachers were using a master key to break into their space” and were uncomfortable with this. I arranged a meeting with the vice-principal and the students. The students unapologetically articulated that this was their space and did not want other people coming into it. I was so proud of how the students demonstrated their rights and ability to stand up for themselves and their needs. As a result, an agreement was made that the lock to the classroom would be changed, and the students now have a safe and secure space that is truly their own.
Barb: What has it meant to the Black students to have you as a resource?
Coach Bre: I will start my answer with a quote from a student who, when asked about having access to an affinity space, referred to it as “an oasis.” She went on to express that when Black students enter the room, nothing out there matters anymore.
The program allows for a space for students to simply be. When moving through very white spaces as a Black individual, there is a lot of performing that has to happen, and that gets exhausting. With the coaches, students get to just be themselves, and that’s more than enough. Additionally, students have the space to speak out about experiences that have various nuances due to their identity, and they have the safety of knowing I will understand without them having to over-explain. This is not likely an opportunity they have had before.
Additionally, this program ensures that Black student voices are brought to tables where their voices have historically been missing. A Black-identifying staff member sitting at decision-making tables can significantly change a Black student’s educational experience trajectory.
The program also allows Black students to build community and social capital by meeting one another, whereas, historically, Black students have not had the opportunity or space to connect or know each other.
Barb: What does it mean to your education colleagues to have you as a resource?
Coach Bre: Just as with anything else, some people struggle with change, which has been evident. However, others are amazing, excited and open to learning and being held accountable; they know they have caused harm and want to know how to stop causing harm. I am also proud to have been recognized as a recipient of an Inspire Award from the Halton District School Board by the vice-principal of one of the schools where I work.
Barb: How does your presence benefit Black students and the Black student community?
Coach Bre: Number one would be representation. When I went to high school, there were no Black staff at all. If there are Black staff at schools now, the majority are not in higher-ranking positions. They are not at tables of “power” where big decisions are being made. I am at those tables. It has been encouraging for Black students to see and know I am at these tables and realize that sitting at them is achievable and they can do it too.
Barb: How can Black students find a coach at their schools, or can you offer any advice on how students can advocate for adding a GCBS at their school if one does not exist?
Coach Bre: In Halton, although Graduation Coaches are only assigned to five of the many high schools, Black students in schools that don’t have a designated coach can reach out to coaches from schools that do, and we try our best to address their needs. Before the program expands to a school, we have staff on our Human Rights and Equity team that speak with administrators to determine site preparedness for the program. We want to be sure that there is pre-work being done by the school and that they are demonstrating their readiness for the Graduation Coach for Black Students program. We want to ensure that accountability is not placed on the program but that school leaders are held accountable for ensuring that Black students have positive experiences in educational spaces.
Barb: What can POGO Counsellors do to ensure that we provide equitable, safe and informed counselling/guidance to our Black student survivors?
Coach Bre: It is important that as POGO Counsellors you recognize oppression exists not only in school systems but in the medical system. You can best support Black students by understanding how oppression has worked against them, for example, within the processes that have historically excluded their cultural context. Remain curious about culture and, in this case, what is important in Black cultures. For example, in Black culture, community inclusion is often missed as desirable when people in the helping profession lack cultural experience and have been educated in a manner that promotes individualism. Severing the tie between child and parent is one of the historical elements of oppression. It breeds mistrust. So even when working with a student over 18, be conscious of this and consider how to navigate the situation from a place of cultural humility.
Barb: Is there anything else you want people to know about GCBS?
Coach Bre: The title can confuse some people, because we correlate graduation and educational success with academics. People might think that we only work with students in Grades 11 and 12, preparing them for graduating high school. In fact, it takes more than grades for a student to complete their formal educational journey well. We don’t only want our students to finish well academically; we also want them to finish well emotionally, mentally and socially.
When a Graduation Coach for Black Students sits in on school meetings with or about a student, we are the ones who are often able to see the nuances in a student’s situation through the cultural lens because of where we sit in our identity. We bring the lens that has been missing for far too long.
Author’s Note: To find out more about the Graduation Coach for Black Students program, please visit the Ontario Government website